Life on the Houston Fifth Ward’s plume

Editor’s note: This story was produced and co-published in collaboration with Scalawag.

HOUSTON — There’s a certain smell that reminds Dianna Cormier-Jackson of her childhood on Leila Street in Houston’s Fifth Ward. When she was young in the early 1960s, she recalls the air there feeling “heavy,” as if it was thick with oil and gasoline. Some days, the heavy smell would be so strong that her parents would make her and her siblings stay in the house. But on school days, they marched out into the rank air.

Today, Cormier-Jackson can’t catch a whiff of the smell without thinking of her brother Ronald Joseph, who used to walk her home from nearby Dogan Elementary. He would have preferred his sister not tag along after school. Her legs were shorter than his, her steps smaller, and with each of her brother’s bounds over the top of the rain puddles, her feet would drop into them with a splash. She remembers looking down at her shoes, stuck in puddles glistening with oil sheens––the holographic blues, purples, and yellows, smeared into the water like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Once they made it home, Cormier-Jackson would cry to their mother about how her brother made her mess up her shoes and socks. Her mother would scrub and scrub, but the yellow tint never would wash out.

The smell of that yellow tint, they’d later learn, came from a concoction of chemicals seeping out of a nearby Englewood Rail Yard on Liberty Road, which bounds the Fifth Ward’s eastern end near Cormier-Jackson’s current home, which is right across the street from where she grew up.

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In the 1970s, Cormier-Jackson’s mother was diagnosed with sarcoma. The cancer was attacking her liver, lungs, and kidneys. Her mother’s illness was among the reasons Cormier-Jackson stuck close to home once she was old enough to move out, choosing to stay home as a caregiver. At her mother’s appointments, she remembers the doctor asking, “Was there possible exposure?” They were unsure. Her mother had never been one to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol. The doctor blamed asbestos. In 1979, Cormier-Jackson’s mother died from complications of cancer.

In the decades to come, Cormier-Jackson buried several more loved ones. Next was her brother Alton Cormier, who worked at the rail yard. He also died from complications of cancer. Then her ex-husband. Her brother-in-law. Neighbor after neighbor. If not for a car accident that took her father’s life, Cormier-Jackson believes there’s a possibility he would have gone the way of cancer, too—during his autopsy, medical officials found a cyst on his lung.

“Surely had [my brother] known, he wouldn’t have allowed me to step into the water,” Cormier-Jackson, now 66, said of what they’d learn of the oily puddles.

Just as the chemicals’ smell wouldn’t wash out of their clothes, neither have their long lasting effects on the community.

One of the primary chemicals residents of the Fifth were exposed to was creosote, recognizable as the oily, highly flammable substance used to coat telephone poles today. It is also a “probable human carcinogen,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Low-level, long-term exposure has been linked to certain types of cancer, as well as chronic health conditions involving stomach pains, liver problems, and burning of the mouth and throat.

For decades, creosote and other chemicals were used as a coating to preserve wooden railroad ties at the nearby rail yard, which was once the largest in the Southern U.S.

Houston environmental justice

“There’s several issues involved in a wood treatment plant,” said Dr. James Dahlgren, a medical toxicology expert who has studied the impacts of similar contamination sites on communities since the 1970s. “When the company was operating, they probably were giving off chemical fumes in the air, and the people living in the neighborhood would, of course, have been breathing the volatile chemicals.”

In 2019, an investigation by the Texas Department of State Health confirmed a cancer cluster in the less than five-square-mile area that encompasses Houston’s Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods. Defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a cancer cluster is a “greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.” Two years into state health researchers’ investigation, in January 2021, the state health department reported a second cancer cluster—this time of childhood lymphoblastic leukemia, with rates five times higher than the national average. Those findings haven’t changed anything for Cormier-Jackson and her neighbors who still live alongside the contamination sites.

That hasn’t stopped them from seeking accountability, which means real action from Union Pacific, the company that owns the Englewood Yard today and the party residents claim is responsible for the pollution. Community organizers want the creosote gone, residents relocated, and the medical bills they say they’ve acquired as a result of the creosote exposure paid off.

To date, Union Pacific has refused responsibility for any contamination or possible related illness. Instead, in June, the company offered a plan to contain future spread that residents—and the city of Houston—are rejecting.

Throughout their fight, courts have said that the burden of proof rests on the community. Community members argue that their cancers and other ailments are the proof. And like the stains on Cormier-Jackson’s socks as a child, their communal pain is a stain on the city.

Restitution, residents say, is the only answer to their decades-long plea for help.

“It’s a lifetime of damage,” Cormier-Jackson said.

For decades, silently, the chemicals spread

Houston Fifth Ward

The rail yard, which first ran in 1895 but hasn’t been operational since 1984, was previously owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, until the Union Pacific company bought them out in 1996, inheriting the land.

That land contained an open pit, which has been there longer than most residents have lived nearby.

By most definitions, the pit was just a big hole. It lacked a protective lining to contain pollution sources, as would be mandated today. Like any hole, if you pour water into it, the water seeps its way down. Back then, it was standard practice to pour the tar-like creosote and other chemical waste into the pit after they built up from use. As the chemicals were gradually poured into the hole month after month, year after year, the heavier materials crept further down until they hit a less permeable surface, or a harder dirt layer.

Then, the chemicals began the slow process of spreading outward until arriving underneath folks’ homes, some 110 of which have been determined to sit atop this underground plume.

Creosote contamination can come through interaction with the soil or via drinking water, according to the CDC. And both the soil and the water in the Fifth would have had exposure for decades.

“The dust in the dirt from that facility [at that time] would have blown into the neighborhood yards,” Dahlgren, who has served as a medical expert witness in similar cases, said. “Yards would have been contaminated, even if it didn’t come from the soil underneath.”

As the dumping of creosote waste continued, so did the chemical spread—through a process with no precise way of measuring over time, according to health offices. The contamination has continued its gradual spread across the area, according to city and state health officials who made this discovery in the past year, nearly 40 years after the rail yard’s site was last operational.

“As long as there’s a source, it’ll spread it,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental officer.

Underneath some residents’ homes, city and state health officials have found as much as 10 solid feet of the tar-like substance. It’s unclear how long remediation efforts might take, health officials said. Complicating matters is the fact that creosote is not a continuous liquid, or water-like substance, and therefore the contamination cannot be pumped manually out of the ground until the concentration is so small that the earth would naturally filter and clean it over time. Instead, they’ll need to remove the creosote-contaminated soil and replace it with new soil, an arduous and imperfect process.

“No one knows how long this is going to take,” Hopkins said of the soil remediation process’ long road ahead. “It isn’t likely that we’ll ever get to a point where it’s going to be gone.”

At the forefront of residents’ concerns is whether or not they’re ingesting creosote or other chemicals.

Although folks like Cormier-Jackson say they haven’t smelled creosote in their part of the neighborhood for years, residents who live closer to the plume still report catching whiffs of the chemical. “Just because you can’t smell it doesn’t mean that it’s not there,” Hopkins said.

Depending on how loose the soil is underneath their street and homes, it also has the potential to eventually start vaporizing and entering the air their neighborhood breathes.

“What happens is the vapor––the chemicals that are volatile in creosote––will migrate through the soil and enter the homes through vapor intrusion,” Dahlgren explained. “Then the soil gets into their homes. They track it inside when they play in the yard. They bring it in the house. They breathe the fine, tiny particles. They’re probably all poisoned to some various degree.”

When a neighborhood begins to break, not bend

Houston Fifth Ward justice

The Fifth Ward is a tight-knit community, the type of place where three generations of a family live on the same street, like Cormier-Jackson’s––her daughter built a house across the street after family land was passed down from Cormier-Jackson’s parents. The community is also 47 percent Black, compared to about 23 percent in the city as a whole. More than 38 percent of Fifth Ward residents earn less than the federal poverty level, according to researchers at Rice University.

But the neighborhood is also changing. Today, as the city’s affluent flee their flood-prone neighborhoods, new construction indicates that the gentrification market is encroaching on this higher land. New homes next to boarded up shotgun houses is the new norm.

Still, the community’s longtime residents have found themselves having the same conversation. It often happened by chance while they were out running an errand, but it almost always ended the same way: concerned faces and the news of a cancer diagnosis.

Some residents trace the beginning back to their parents’ generation.

The connecting theme across each community member’s cancer diagnosis and death, residents realized, was where they lived. Those who could afford to began moving away from the neighborhood. Cormier-Jackson said most of her former neighbors cited better air quality as their reason for leaving.

“When you’re Black and have limited resources, you buy where you can,” Cormier-Jackson said of their family’s move to the Fifth Ward in 1952. “This was a reasonable area at the time, close to the rail yard.” Her father, like many of the neighborhood’s working-class residents, worked at the rail yard before it shuttered. Since then, most local industry has left. Researchers at the Institute for Urban Studies at Rice found that the Fifth Ward has a roughly 13 percent unemployment rate.

Following a roughly 15-year stint away from home, Sandra Edwards, 55, remembers being struck by the contrast between the neighborhood she grew up in and what she returned to in 2010 after her grandfather fell ill of cancer. She grew up on Lavender Street, a dead-end that sits atop the contamination plume.

“When I moved back to the neighborhood, it was just dead,” Edwards said. “I was like, where is everybody? I walked the street to see who’s still staying out around here, and then you find a person you know and y’all start talking and they say, ‘Such and such died. Such and such died.’”

Edwards, like others, began asking questions.

The questions continued until April 2019, when the Houston Health Department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and Union Pacific Railroad officials met with Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens residents during a community meeting. At the meeting, locals voiced their concerns and asked TCEQ to request a cancer cluster analysis. Based on EPA sources, the Houston Health Department compiled a list of health effects associated with the exposure to the wood treatment chemicals, indicating a link between exposure and increased likelihood of at least six specific types of cancer, among other health concerns.

Houston Fifth Ward

In November 2019, the cancer cluster analysis found that rates of larynx, lung, and bronchus and esophagus cancer were “statistically significantly greater than expected” in the area when compared to averages seen elsewhere in both the city of Houston and Texas.

By January of last year, the Houston Health Department and the community group IMPACT Fifth Ward, a group of past and present locals raising awareness of the cancer rates, led by Edwards, began conducting a door-to-door health survey for a second analysis. Of the 30 households that participated, 13 families in total, or 43 percent, self-reported a cancer diagnosis in the home. Houston’s average rate of cancer is a little more than 6 percent. The analysis also found that the majority of the cancer diagnoses were received after 2003.

Throughout the analyses, the Union Pacific company denied any wrongdoing.

At a meeting in late 2019, Cormier-Jackson and Edwards remember the conversation getting heated with Union Pacific representatives. They told the company’s spokespeople that they want the creosote cleaned up, and that they should be compensated for the damage. Both remember a representative telling the group that the company has enough manpower to tie any potential case up in court for the next 100 years. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on the incident, citing an inability to “respond to something that vague.”

“I told them, ‘Y’all go right ahead!’” Edwards said of the meeting. “I ain’t got the kind of manpower y’all got, but I’ll be fighting the whole way. They made it clear that that’s what they were gonna try and do,” but now that residents say it’s been proven, “they don’t know what to do.”

Union Pacific has so far proposed a plan to install an underground wall 75-feet deep to contain the creosote, as well as off-site wells that would pump out contaminated groundwater. Residents don’t favor the plan because it doesn’t address the plume under their homes. And although the company is presenting the cleanup plan to TCEQ, state officials have yet to call for any type of resolution on the alleged exposure. Residents have until August 30 to provide comments on the plan.

Earlier this year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also called on Union Pacific “to relocate affected residents and create a buffer between contaminated areas and homes in the neighborhood,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office. “Someone needs to be held accountable for the health care costs of these families and specifically these children. “

The mayor also called for the contamination site to be designated as an EPA Superfund site, which the agency defines as areas of land or bodies of water that have been contaminated to the extent that each requires long-term remediation to ensure the land, water, and air meets safety standards.

The site remains without a federal Superfund designation, and it’s likely to stay that way, said Dahlgren, who’s spent a large portion of his career as an environmental investigator.

“EPA would have to declare it a Superfund site,” Dahlgren said.

Texas already has 53 Superfund sites, and 21 of the sites are located in Harris County, which encompasses Houston. There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites nationwide.

Houston Fifth Ward

To force the company to honor Turner’s requests to pay to relocate residents and assist with health care costs will also be tricky, health officials said. The cancer cluster analyses were conducted using cancer registry data from 2000 to 2016. But cancer has a latency period, meaning it might take a long time to detect, and that data doesn’t reflect the chances of those who might have been exposed decades prior.

“It’s one blow after another” for the Fifth Ward community, Dr. Hopkins said. “The terrible consequence for the community is that we don’t have that data” to prove the link to the cancer rates while the state health department works to recreate the exposure’s path from the rail yard site and into the neighborhood.

What they do know is that the state health department was told by the Houston Health Department to look for specific types of cancer, and that officials found those very cancers. They also understand that creosote and other potentially harmful chemicals are underneath residents’ homes.

“Those two things alone, logically, make it clear to the city that there is a relationship,” Hopkins said. Before a scientific conclusion can be made, Hopkins said, they’d need more data to include the cancer rates prior to 2000.

Union Pacific continues to deny having played a role in the neighborhood’s cancer clusters.

“Union Pacific sympathizes with residents who are dealing with medical issues and those with health concerns,” Union Pacific Railroad spokesperson Robynn Tysver said in an email. “However, decades of testing under the supervision of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality have found no exposure pathway to residents, and recent health studies state that they were not intended to determine the cause of any medical issues.”

The precedent linking chemicals used for wood treatment and cancers is strong, Dahlgren said.

“It’s 100 percent. There’s nothing vague about it,” he continued. “It would have come from decades of contamination. What we’ve seen in other settings is if you measure them around the home, you’ll find it to be high in these chemicals.”

Hopkins said that there’s a roughly five percent probability of error when health researchers are looking at the likelihood of mapping out high cancer rates for one cancer in a singular tract. The data so far analyzed multiple tracks. “But when you then have multiple cancers and multiple tracts, then the likelihood of it not being true goes to very, very, very low,” Hopkins said. In other words, the probability of residents’ illnesses coming from another source are very low.

“I think that’s very compelling,” Hopkins said.

The Fifth Ward carries the burden of proof

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Since the beginning of residents’ fight against Union Pacific, they’ve been told that the burden of proof for the creosote contamination rests on the community. If, and only if, community members can prove the site contaminated their homes, a fix may be possible.

IMPACT members like Edwards think they’ve delivered on that threshold through their community survey work. They say the latest sampling and research furthers their case, too.

With the latest report, in order to determine if the specific types of childhood leukemia rates were higher than average in the area, researchers compared their findings to the rates they would expect to see in other parts of Texas. When analyzing all 21 census tracts the researchers measured, they found 28 cases. Prior estimates cite that they should expect to find about 16 cases, near the state’s average rate.

“Everybody knew something was wrong, but they just couldn’t prove it,” Edwards said. “We have proof.”

Edwards keeps the state findings in a folder that she and IMPACT plan to present to the Union Pacific company later this year. “At first they were saying, ‘It’s not our fault.’ Now all of a sudden, it’s just, ‘We feel sorry for the residents.’ If you’re so sorry, come [get] your ass out here and do something.”

LaTonya Payne, 49, grew up in the Fifth Ward and has lived in her current home in the neighborhood since 2005. Like Edwards and Cormier-Jackson, she, too, lives not far from the contaminated plume.

In 2016, one of Payne’s friends in the neighborhood was diagnosed with cancer. She felt it was time she should get checked as well. Doctors told her she has breast cancer. Around that same time, her son Corinthian “Mister” Giles was diagnosed with childhood leukemia. After a years-long battle, Giles passed away last month. The community remains in mourning.

“It’s very unfortunate for us to be subject to this type of treatment,” Payne said of the neighborhood’s fight with the company and to stay alive. “Different people dying off, people getting cancer and dealing with the struggles and the emotional roller coasters, going through the different phases of treatment.”

Someone, Payne said, should be held accountable. Something needs to be done.

“They should clean this area up, however they can,” Payne added. “We need to be compensated for our pain and suffering and everything we’ve been through.”

As city officials point out, there is momentum on residents’ side. The mayor’s office has made revitalizing the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhood a priority in the coming years. Most recently, Turner asked the Biden administration’s EPA to force the company into ordering a cleanup of all hazardous waste. In June, the EPA awarded the city with a $200,000 grant to use toward environmental justice reforms. The mayor’s office says the city intends to use the grant for citywide public education on the risks communities face from “elevated environmental pollutants.” The city also recently proposed plans to install an air monitoring system in the neighborhood. Recent air monitoring data have shown no pollutant levels of concern.

For many, though, it’s still too little, too late.

“Thank god so far none of my grandchildren have any birth defects. Some of my neighbors, they got birth defects in their grandkids. I’m sure that’s what it’s from,” Cormier-Jackson said. The health effects of wood treatment chemical exposure to children remain unclear and have not been widely studied; though, the CDC reports “they would likely experience the same health effects seen in adults.”

She shook her head and continued, the sound of pet parakeets chirping in her living room, “It has to be proven.”

Banner photo: Dianna Cormier-Jackson stands in the front yard of her home in Houston’s Fifth Ward, across the street from where her parents lived, and where her daughter has a house today. (Credit: Xander Peters)