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

State officials have now set a deadline for when Union Pacific must come up with a cleanup plan for a contaminated site in the Fifth Ward. This comes after state investigators discovered cancer clusters near a former creosote facility in the area last year.

Union Pacific has now until August 31, 2020 to collect additional environmental data and come up with a cleanup plan. The railroad company will also be required to provide interim reports in the spring and summer, throughout their data-collection process.  

Former Southern Pacific employee Samuel Lewis remembers spending up to 13 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week at a site known as Houston Wood Preserving Works.

Lewis worked as a laborer and machine operator at the former wood treatment facility for 30 years. Creosote, a known cancer-causing chemical was notoriously used in its operations. Southern Pacific was eventually bought over by Union Pacific, who now bears responsibility for the railyard site in the Fifth Ward.

Lewis and many others in the neighborhood believe creosote is to blame for the higher than average cancer rates found in a state investigation last year.

“My coworkers – they’re gone. They’re gone with cancer and everything else too,” Lewis said.

Kathy Blueford-Daniels, the former Fifth Ward super neighborhood president said she’s a 62-year resident of the area.

“I have had thyroid cancer. I have had my gall bladder removed. Last year, I had a lump removed from my breast and I live a 150 yards from the creosote,” Blueford-Daniels said.

On Monday, authorities with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Union Pacific has already started the process of collecting additional environmental data to include in their cleanup plan.

“The assessment has identified ground water and soil contamination and Union Pacific has addressed some of that through interim measures over this assessment time frame to include capping and consolidation of soils on site, as well as removal of the creosote material that is in the ground water,” said Beth Seaton, the Director of the Remediation Division at the TCEQ.
Texas State Senator Borris Miles said he’s been fighting against renewing Union Pacific's permit for the last three years.

“Union Pacific planned to just keep the ground undisturbed. Unacceptable. This is our first victory. More work needs to be done to clean up what I consider is environmental racism.

“Although this won’t bring back the lives that have been lost, or heal those that who are still fighting for tomorrow; this is the first step in ridding our community of this environmental hazard,” Miles said.

Union Pacific responded by releasing the following statement: 

“We understand the health concerns of those living in this industrial area, and support fair, objective, scientific investigation of this issue. Decades of testing found no scientific evidence of a creosote exposure pathway to residents. We continue monitoring the situation in accordance with the TCEQ’s rules and regulations.”
TCEQ officials said once a plan is received in August, they’ll have a 90-day review period before putting it out for public comment.