HOUSTON - When Brenda Compton, 73, was a child living in a tight-knit Black neighborhood of northeast Houston, the smell of chemicals was constant, she said. The soil was discolored. She remembers the rainbow sheen on the water running in the drainage ditches.
"We were used to it because it was our neighborhood," said Compton, who grew up in Fifth Ward and still lives in the house her parents built more than 70 years ago. "It was our home."
The chemical smell often wafted to their homes from the east, where a rail yard a few blocks away was treating railroad ties with hazardous chemicals in the late 1970s and early 1980s with little oversight from environmental regulators. Two Superfund sites also sit northwest of the neighborhood. Residents are continually fighting to keep new sources of pollution from moving in, from concrete batch plants to interstate expansions.
It’s the type of community — dominated by people of color and polluted for decades — that the nation’s new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, has promised that President Joe Biden’s administration will prioritize for environmental cleanups, emissions enforcement and infrastructure investments.
Regan, who spoke with residents of Fifth Ward and other communities of color in the Houston region Friday as part of a tour of historically marginalized and polluted communities across the South, said the EPA will ensure that money from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Build Back Better Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives Friday, will flow to communities that need it most.
"There are so many things we need to do to rebuild trust," he added. "It’s not rocket science, we just have to get to work."
The top EPA official also said his agency is "prepared to act" to prevent companies or Texas environmental regulators from stalling cleanup efforts in Houston and communities like it.
"I can assure you that if the state does not lean in as aggressively as we would like, EPA has the authority and ability to do what we need to do," Regan said.
First: Community organizer Sandra Edwards wipes away tears as she recounts family, friends and neighbors who have had cancer during a Friday roundtable discussion with EPA Administrator Michael Regan. Last: EPA Administrator Michael Regan listens to resident Doris Brown on Carol Thomas’ porch Friday during a tour of Houston neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by pollution. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
How, specifically, the federal government will address decades of lax environmental enforcement and policy loopholes that allowed a long legacy of pollution was a key question from residents to the EPA administrator on Friday. Much of the damage has already been done: Many of the residents of Fifth Ward and an adjacent neighborhood, Kashmere Gardens, already have cancer or have lost a loved one to the disease. Higher-than-expected rates of certain cancers among both adults and children were identified by state health officials in recent years.
Contamination is often technically difficult and expensive to remove decades after it was created. A high legal bar to prove that health problems were a result of pollution prevents most lawsuits from succeeding.
"It’s going to take years to clean it up, and people have already died from cancer," Compton said. "The rail yard is still there. It’s been there for so long, and it’s part of our area. How do you clean up a whole area?"
Community advocates and environmental experts say the EPA needs to rethink its approach if the federal government is going to holistically address the problems in such neighborhoods.
"People have allowed so many different types of industries to move in and function right there in the community with residents," said Denae King, a toxicologist and research program manager at Texas Southern University who has worked with the residents to find solutions for legacy contamination in the area. "Many of the people that were exposed over the years are now gone."
Bertha Wilson at the house where she and her nine siblings were raised in Houston's Fifth Ward. Wilson and four of her siblings had cancer at some point. The fear that it may re-emerge is a constant source of stress, they said. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
Legacy of pollution in communities of color
Earlier this month, university scientists came to test the soil in Compton’s front yard for environmental contamination. She’s still waiting on the results.
"This is important, and this is scary," said Compton, whose parents as well as two of her siblings battled cancer at some point. "It’s still scary."
Her mom was diagnosed with thymus cancer and overcame it with treatment; she died in 2013 from complications from pneumonia. Her dad died with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999. Her brother had colon cancer and beat it. Another brother died with multiple myeloma in 2019. She and a third brother are the only immediate family members still cancer-free.
Brenda Compton in the backyard of her family home in Houston's Fifth Ward on Thursday. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
Years of community activism followed the revelation that the groundwater beneath homes near the rail yard was contaminated with creosote — a mix of chemicals used to preserve railroad ties that the EPA calls a probable human carcinogen. That brought environmental testing, a city health survey, a state analysis of a cancer cluster in the area and now a visit from the EPA chief.
According to a 1993 environmental assessment of the rail yard that was recently made public, chemicals from the rail yard leaked into the surrounding soil, carried toxic waste off into the ditches and streets and discharged more pollution into the sewer system than it was supposed to.
In 1981, an explosion occurred at one of the chemical tanks that stored materials for the wood treatment operation. The extent of the contamination from that release is "unknown," according to the assessment, which was conducted by PRC Environmental Management Inc., in Dallas to comply with the EPA’s hazardous waste requirements.
Lena West, 77, who grew up across the street from Compton, said her father, Herman Earl Hall, worked at the rail yard for 49 years. Every day, she said, he came home covered in what looked like tar and smelled like chemicals. Their mother boiled the clothes each night to get them clean enough for him to wear the next day. Of the 10 children in their family, five developed some type of cancer, she said.
"When the family is riddled with cancer, you are on high alert for everything," West said. She and her siblings are screened for cancer frequently since several people in the family have contracted the disease — it’s a constant source of stress, she said.
"It would be hard to blame it on anything else [other than the pollution]," West said. "Our grandparents, our great aunties, they didn’t have this problem, and they didn’t live here."
A spokesperson for Union Pacific said the company is pleased the EPA administrator visited Houston’s Fifth Ward to hear directly from the community about the railroad tie facility that the company acquired from Southern Pacific in 1997 after production ceased. The company has maintained that environmental testing has not identified any current human exposure to contamination.
"Union Pacific is in the process of renewing our permit to continue our ongoing, decades-long cleanup, testing, monitoring and remediation activities at the site," Robynn Tysver, a spokesperson for Union Pacific, said in a statement. "We have an open, ongoing dialogue with the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the City of Houston and Harris County."
Though the Texas Department of State Health Services found elevated rates of cancer in residential areas surrounding the Houston rail yard, proving it came from a specific contaminant is extremely difficult and often fruitless in the current legal and regulatory system, environmental experts said.
In 2000, Houston rail yard workers and their families sued Union Pacific, alleging cancer and other ailments were caused by exposure to creosote and other chemicals — such as vinyl chloride monomer, a known human carcinogen — while at work. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs didn’t provide sufficient evidence to prove their illnesses came from a specific pollution source at the rail yard — even though toxicologists say it would be nearly impossible to do so.
Kellie Pryor holds a sign outside of Greater Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church during a tour of Houston's Fifth Ward on Friday. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
"We’d like to be able to have clear direct causality," said King, the toxicologist at TSU. "With cancer, it’s just not that simple. Oftentimes, cancers result from a long-term exposure to a contaminant, but that person could be exposed to other things during that long time period."
Joe Gardella, a chemist in Buffalo, N.Y., who has researched the impact of industrial pollution on local communities and advised EPA cleanups for decades, said data for historic contamination is often sparse. The explosions that occured four decades ago at the rail yard are of particular concern, he said, since burning naphthalene or creosote creates air pollution that’s toxic to people breathing the fumes.
"It’s hard to reconstruct what the exposures were," Gardella said. "A lot of times, the corporate world will say, ‘Well, we don’t have any data about the exposure, and there may be a cancer cluster there, but we have no way to prove that the cancer was the result of exposure.’"
James Dahlgren, a medical doctor and expert on environmental toxins who published an epidemiological study on the effects of creosote on the human body in 2003, was an expert source in the Houston rail yard workers case 20 years ago. Attorneys for Union Pacific labeled his analysis "junk science" in part because he didn’t link a specific chemical to the alleged health problems or quantify exactly how much exposure the workers had to creosote, naphthalene or other toxins while working at the rail yard.
He said that’s nearly impossible to do unless a community has millions of dollars to spend on a thorough epidemiological study.
Hundreds of Houston residents have joined lawsuits seeking damages from Union Pacific in recent years. It’s an uphill battle: The Texas Supreme Court in 2007 held that plaintiffs that sue for damages from toxic contamination must rule out other potential causes with "reasonable certainty" — a bar that’s nearly impossible to meet, environmental experts said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has floated the idea of buying out some residents so they can move to another area, according to the Houston Chronicle, but some like Compton don’t want to leave. Maybe she’s old-fashioned, she says, but she doesn’t want to be bought out — not by the rail yard nor by the speculative investors swarming into the neighborhood that lies just a few minutes from downtown. "There is nothing like Fifth Ward," Compton said.
National and city officials walk during a tour of Houston's Fifth Ward on Friday. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
What will EPA do?
Some environmental lawyers and community activists say the EPA could make changes that would have big impacts on communities facing long-standing pollution, such as investigating more public complaints about pollution that cite the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That legislation prohibits intentional discrimination and discriminatory effects on the basis of race, color and national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance — which includes state environmental agencies that approve permits to operate polluting facilities.
"EPA could really move forward on [discrmination] claims, investigate the most pressing ones and put money and energy towards expanding their civil rights enforcement office," said Scott Badenoch, an environmental law professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law. "That is a major avenue for communities to get redress."
Advocates have also called on the agency to require environmental regulators to consider all the sources of contamination in a community before allowing more polluting businesses to move in, arguing that could help to avoid overburdening any one neighborhood with pollution.
During a conversation with faculty and students at TSU on Thursday night, Regan suggested the agency is considering action to address the cumulative impact of pollution but warned that it’s unclear whether the EPA has the authority to do that. He said he is discussing with members of Congress whether the EPA needs additional statutory authority.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan listens to a roundtable discussion at Texas Southern University in Houston on Thursday. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
"EPA is exploring ways that we can legally read the Clean Air Act in a way that allows us to take into consideration some of these external factors," Regan said. "Do we believe that there’s some vulnerabilities there if people want to challenge us in court? Possibly. But the only way to find out is to test it."
Still, residents who spoke with Regan on Friday said environmental regulation is only part of the problem. They said the people who have already gotten sick need proper health care, reliable transportation to their doctor’s appointments, compensation for their medical bills and cancer screenings — solutions that aren’t within the EPA’s traditional authority.
"We didn’t ask for cancer," Sandra Edwards, a resident in the Fifth Ward and member of IMPACT, a community group advocating for solutions to the legacy of contamination from the rail yard, told Regan on Friday. "We shouldn’t have to go all the way to the medical center across town. We should bring a facility to this neighborhood for people."
Disclosure: Texas Southern University - Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and Union Pacific Railroad Company have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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