HOUSTON – The Houston Health Department said Friday that surface soil samples collected in July around the contaminated Union Pacific rail yard and tested by the department contain dioxin, a highly toxic chemical compound associated with cancer and other severe health risks.
The department said it has begun notifying residents about the findings.
The city said in July that it plans to sue Union Pacific over the matter at the site.
The department said laboratory analysis received by the department indicates all 42 collected soil samples were contaminated with dioxin. Additionally, 27 percent of the dioxin sample concentrations exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s non-carcinogenic risk-based screening level of 51 nanograms per kilogram in soil for children.
“Dioxin is a carcinogen and it’s linked to cancer and one cancer it’s linked to is liver cancer and that’s actually one of the cancers that are shown to be spastically higher around the site so it’s super concerning,” Dr. Loren Hopkins with the Houston Health Department said.
Dr. Loren Hopkins called the findings a game changer and hopes it prompts quick action.
“That action should continue to evolve the city, the health department and the community so better coordinated efforts and really expediency to make sure we can keep that community safe,” she said.
It’s a problem resident have spoken about for several years. Back in May, residents held a meeting and asked Union Pacific Railroad to do more to contain and remove creosote contamination surrounding the old rail yard.
“This is a toxic place. My thing is that these people who lives closest to the yard should have been moved out a long time ago. The health should have been the most important thing as far as problems that’s exist here. Get the people out,” resident Walter Mallett said.
Community activist Sandra Edwards says they will continue to fight for justice.
“I am happy that the results are out because data tells everything. They kept saying they didn’t have nothing past their fence line, but the data says you do,” Sandra Edwards said.
“I’m just excited that people are finally listening,” resident Kathy Blueford-Daniels said.
Kathy Blueford-Daniels lives in the Fifth Ward.
“This community has been suffering for a number of years. The area where the toxins where highest Director behind me that young lady she passed during COVID, but she’s lost two children to cancer,” she said.
Testing of the soil samples from residential properties and right of ways indicates the highest concentrations of the chemical are at the fence line and decrease in areas farther away from the 33-acre site.
The property is a former railroad creosote treatment facility located in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods near the intersections of Liberty Road and Lockwood Drive and Liberty Road and Altoona Street. Creosote treatment at the site began in 1899 and did not cease until 1984, resulting in soil and groundwater contamination.
“These tests results raise an added level of concern,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is quoted as saying in the news release. “No longer are we just talking about a dangerous plume beneath the surface, but a cancer-causing substance, dioxin, at the surface level. UP and the state must now change their entire remediation plan. We have promised residents that the city will continue to test, monitor and work in their best interest.”
Just last month, Houston, Harris County and the Bayou City Initiative joined Union Pacific in asking the state to temporarily pause processing Union Pacific’s permit to clean up the site to allow those involved to find a way to enhance and speed up the remediation process.
Edwards says that plan won’t work.
“Do something constructive over here don’t keep playing with us trying to come with these brilliant ideas that we don’t benefit from,” she said.
Even though the laboratory analysis recommends additional sampling, there is a strong link between environmental conditions within these communities and human health, said Stephen L. Williams, the department’s director.
The department said it began notifying residents of the test results in person if soil samples were taken from their properties or immediately adjacent areas. It started notifying neighborhood and community leaders from the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens and elected officials on Thursday.
The department said it also provided the sampling results to the EPA, Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for further action.
Dioxins are a group of toxic chemical compounds that can cause certain types of cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system and can interfere with hormones. They are considered persistent organic pollutants by the EPA because they take a long time to break down once in the environment.
Although the contaminated site falls under the jurisdiction of the TCEQ, the health department said it “is taking steps to fill in gaps to address community concerns. It will continue its efforts to support the community.”
In November 2019, the department contacted DSHS to request a cancer cluster analysis. DSHS informed the department that an analysis had been completed four months earlier at the request of TCEQ.
The department and the community group IMPACT conducted a community survey of the 110 properties located over the contamination in January of 2020. “The data helped the health department better understand the health needs in the area,” the department said in its news release.
Early in 2021, DSHS issued a report to the department detailing an analysis of the occurrence of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and adult kidney and renal pelvis cancers in census tracts around the rail yard. The analysis found a higher-than-expected cancer rate of acute lymphoblastic leukemia at nearly five times the expected rate.
The department said a more extensive timeline is available on the department’s website here.