Residents in Fifth Ward cancer cluster 'feel betrayed' over Union Pacific political donations to area leaders

Some residents in Fifth Ward, where a cancer cluster has been identified by the state, have been battling with Union Pacific Railroad because they believe contaminants from the company are causing the cancer. 

Now they say area leaders have some explaining to do after discovering Union Pacific gave them campaign contributions.

RELATED: Residents rallying in Fifth Ward asking what's being done about the cancer causing contamination

The Fifth Ward residents say it just doesn’t seem right for area leaders to accept political funding from Union Pacific at a time when they need support against what they call environmental inequality. 

"This is what I feel like. This is what we get out of it is that you’re getting paid to look the other way," says Fifth Ward resident Sandra Edwards. 

The group of residents spoke with us with a prop of a skeleton sitting in a lawn chair with them. They say they hope it demonstrates just how many people here have died of cancer, including Leisa Glenn’s mother. 

"We’re still talking about the same thing and who all died," Glenn says. 

MORE: Residents happy to see EPA tackle Fifth Ward cancer cluster after decades of death, pollution

The group says they’re tired of talking, and they want results after the state identified a cancer cluster years ago.

The residents believe the cancer is being caused by the contaminants at Union Pacific Railroad in Fifth Ward, and they’ve been battling with the company for years. Now they’ve found out a number of area leaders who have been fighting with them have received campaign contributions from Union Pacific. 

"It’s hurtful. I feel deceived. I feel like they stuck a knife in our backs, and they’re still turning it slowly but surely," Edwards adds. 

"I’ve been living out here all my life. I’ve smelled it all my life. I’ve played in the water with it all my life," says Fifth Ward resident Robert Lewis, who says he too was diagnosed with cancer. "Non Hoskins Lymphoma. I had skin cancer. I had prostate. I feel very betrayed," Lewis says.   

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I had a great aunt, my grandmother’s baby sister, had breast cancer, which she passed away from. We both lived just blocks from Union Pacific," says Joetta Stevenson.

"You had elected officials saying on the one hand, 'hey, we need to clean this up. Something needs to be done about it' and on the other hand accepting political contributions from Union Pacific. That’s inherently hypocritical. I’m not saying that any elected official has intentionally done something, but I’m saying whether it’s intentional or not intentional, it needs to be remedied now that it’s been brought to light," says Jason Gibson who is representing more than 1,000 residents in a lawsuit against Union Pacific. 

Four of the area political leaders who have received campaign contributions from Union Pacific include donations in 2019 to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner totaling $6,500, more than $9,500 to Senator Carol Alvarado, more than $7,500 to Senator Borris Miles and $5,000 to Senator John Whitmire who says, "I do not keep up with who donates to me. I am supportive of Fifth Ward residents and oppose Union Pacific’s abuse and harm of residents."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Texas sets date for Union Pacific to clean up Fifth Ward site

Senator Alvarado says, 

"I have been an elected official for over 19 years. I have conducted political campaigns for my current position as state senator, for state representative and for city council. Over a period of 20 years, I have raised money for my various political campaigns and have not let any contributions get in the way of serving my district.

Throughout my service as an elected official, the interests of my constituents are always my focus. My office and staff have an excellent working relationship with community, business, education and religious leaders, and neighborhood civic groups.  I am proud of our community presence throughout Senate District 6.

In matters related to Union Pacific, my office has called them out on the issue related to blocking railroad crossings by summoning their executives into my office for lengthy discussions to express our concerns. We have also fostered meetings between concerned community leaders and groups with the railroad company leadership.

On the Fifth Ward creosote yard facility contamination problem, I have been in contact with state and federal regulators, specifically the TCEQ and EPA, to get them to hold Union Pacific accountable and responsible for this toxic mess. I have attended community meetings and have met with fellow elected officials and activists to share information.

A safer and healthy community and the community’s residents is what guides me in this endeavor. Attached I have included various documents and social media posts that highlight my office’s position with regards to Union Pacific in the district.

MORE COVERAGE: Houston mayor asks Union Pacific to help pay for families to move away from cancer cluster area

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, 

"He's been aggressive in his fight on behalf of Fifth Ward residents. It is important to note that the campaign contributions happened during 2019 according the Houston Chronicle, and he has never wavered in his efforts to get the EPA to take action and help residents in Kashmere Gardens. Promising residents he will fight the company to ensure appropriate cleanup" is one thing, actually doing it is another. 

To insinuate the Mayor of the City of Houston would do anything less than stand side by side with residents and fight for Fifth Ward goes against the facts, the history of his public service, and frankly where he chooses to live today.

Last week, it was the Mayor offering comment against the UP sought permit with TCEQ.

In 2021, it was the Mayor personally leading EPA Administrator Regan on a tour of 5th Ward putting it front & center on the national environmental justice scene. The Administrator reiterated the importance of that visit just last month in addressing the AAMA in Washington DC.

The mayor wrote a letter June 25, 2021, encouraging the EPA to take action on behalf of the residents. 

It was Dr. Laura Hopkins & the Houston Health Department that helped do the hard work with residents to prove the cancer cluster numbers within 5th Ward, both working for the Mayor.

Your reporting for the Houston Chronicle and coverage from other news outlets and reporters demonstrates the mayor’s ongoing work on behalf of residents.

Companies are free to donate to whoever they choose, but it is crystal clear from the record that Mayor Turner has been aggressively advocating for the residents of the 5th Ward in Kashmere Gardens and will continue to do so."

Senator Borris Miles says, 

"I have been 100% committed to my constituents and fighting to clean up the creosote in Northeast Houston. I have championed legislation fighting for environmental justice and against environmental racism since I've been elected. My record speaks for itself, especially when fighting against industries that continually pollute minority communities. I have received campaign contributions from Union Pacific, and those funds will be used to bus constituents to the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting this summer in Austin. I have been outspoken in this fight and will continue to be, and we must ensure that TCEQ holds companies like Union Pacific accountable and make sure they clean up the sites they pollute. My number one focus will always be my constituents and their needs."

OTHER COVERAGE: Harris County investigates cancer cluster in Fifth Ward

Union Pacific stated, 

"Union Pacific has a long history of making campaign contributions to candidates across our system.  This is true in races in Harris County and the Greater Houston area. We do so in compliance with national and state rules. Our decisions are based on several factors, including core railroad issues and other metrics. We review our giving to all candidates annually."

We should also point out Union Pacific has given Governor Greg Abbott $50,000 and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick $30,000 in political contributions since 2019.