Houston Approves $5 Million Fund for Cancer Cluster Relocation as Union Pacific Disputes Contamination Responsibility
The city of Houston, Texas, has approved a $5 million fund to relocate residents from neighborhoods close to a Union Pacific rail yard, an area linked to an alarming rise in cancer cases. The contamination is suspected to originate from a wood preservative used at the site for more than 80 years. In response to the health crisis, the city believes it has a moral obligation to relocate residents from four identified cancer clusters. However, the expected cost of relocating the families from the 100 affected properties could escalate to as much as $35 million, prompting the city to explore other funding sources, including federal aid.
Dispute Over Testing and Responsibility
While the city takes action, Union Pacific has insisted on further testing to determine the source and extent of the contamination. Despite their assertion that no health concerns were found linked to the chemicals detected in soil samples, the Houston Health Department accused Union Pacific of misrepresenting the state’s review. The rail company’s pushback has added tension to an already fraught situation, with the health and wellbeing of many residents hanging in the balance.
Early in 2023, the Houston Health Department conducted door-to-door surveys for the residents identified as living above the creosote plume. The survey aimed to understand the relocation desires and health insurance needs of these residents. The findings from the survey will be used by the Mayor’s Relocation Strike Team to develop the voluntary relocation program and health insurance support. In a press conference, Mayor Sylvester Turner emphasized the need to act now to protect the health and safety of affected residents, announcing the formation of his Relocation Strike Team to lead the effort.
Environmental Investigation and Legal Action
In response to the crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has held public informational meetings to update the community on current activities at the Fifth Ward Kashmere Gardens UPRR contamination site. The EPA is using two environmental laws, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also commonly called Superfund, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), to investigate and address the contamination associated with the site.
On another front, the City of Houston sent a 90-day notice of intent to sue under the RCRA to the Union Pacific Railroad Chairman, President and CEO. The notice included a list of requested relief actions to remedy the contamination and its effects on the surrounding environment and community. The city publicly released findings from environmental surface soil sampling, which revealed the presence of dioxins, a highly toxic compound associated with liver cancer, among other severe health risks.
Relocation and Future Steps
The City of Houston has begun the process of moving residents affected in the cancer cluster area caused by Union Pacific Rail Yard. The Houston City Council unanimously approved $5 million in funding to relocate residents of Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward due to the areas being a cancer cluster. The opportunity to move is voluntary, and residents are not being forced to leave. The remaining steps will be in collaboration with the community and the people who are directly impacted by this cancer cluster.
Although the $5 million fund marks a significant step towards addressing the crisis, it’s clear that the battle for accountability, adequate funding, and the health and safety of the residents is far from over. The city and its residents continue to fight for justice and solutions to this dire situation.
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