EPA Seeks Info From Union Pacific About 'Contaminated' Site Near Texas Cancer Cluster

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking information from Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) following calls from the local government to help clean up a hazardous waste site in Houston located near two cancer clusters in the community.

Barry Breen, the EPA's acting assistant administrator, sent a letter to CEO Lance Fritz following up on serious concerns expressed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner about contamination and cleanup at the Houston Wood Preserving Works site. They're also seeking information about the UPRR's knowledge of the pollution and its efforts to clean it up.

oh wow. The EPA today sent a letter to the CEO of Union Pacific Railroad requesting info about its railyard site in Houston where a cancer cluster was identified among nearby residents.

EPA wants UP to provide detailed info on the site requested by Houston's mayor. pic.twitter.com/4a6rY5bQIC

— Erin Douglas (@erinmdouglas23) September 9, 2021

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is committed to advancing environmental justice and incorporating equity considerations into all aspects of our work, including permitting, enforcement and cleanup activities under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to ensure that historic and ongoing impacts of contamination on overburden communities are fully considered and addressed," the letter read. "As this work continues, I write to share the EPA's perspective on the UPRR site and to express our agency's commitment to addressing the serious and disproportionate environmental burdens faced by Houston's Greater Fifth Ward, Denver Harbor, Trinity Gardens and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods."

The EPA said that substantial data has illustrated the severity of the pollution and the subsequent health impacts on the community living near the site following a January 2021 report from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services that found occurrences of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and adult kidney and renal pelvis cancers around the UPRR site, according to the Houston Department of Health.

The former wood treatment site closed in the 1980s but currently ranks above the 80th percentile for all 11 environmental justice indices used by the EPA, including potential diesel matter exposure, air toxics cancer risk, respiratory hazards and more.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters
The EPA is seeking information from Union Pacific Railroad following calls from local government in Houston to help clean up a hazardous waste site that's been linked to two cancer clusters in the community. Shown above is a view of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters on March 16, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Health officials found that children living in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden areas, largely Black neighborhoods, contracted the form of leukemia five times more compared to the state average. Adults living in proximity to the site were also found to have cancer at high rates compared to others in Texas.

Concerns from residents were first brought to representatives from the Houston Health Department, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and UPRR in April 2019 over creosote, a type of coal tar that is probably carcinogenic to humans, at the wood treatment facility.

Since then, representatives from the health department, DSHS and the local government have worked to monitor, track and map the health concerns of residents.

In June 2021, the city of Houston opposed Union Pacific's cleanup plan and Mayor Turner raised concerns about the lack of transparency from the company. He asked the EPA for help to ensure the community has access to all the information, according to the letter.

Union Pacific Railroad is asked to provide answers to 63 questions about the site and their efforts to clean it up by September 30, 2021.

"Union Pacific welcomes a dialogue with U.S. EPA to share all of the testing and scientific information that has already been shared with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, local elected officials, and the public regarding both the ongoing site cleanup efforts and the site cleanup efforts over the past 30 years," Robynn Tysver, the communications manager for Union Pacific, told Newsweek.

Newsweek reached out to the EPA for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.

Update (9/10/2021, 4:00 p.m.): This article has been updated to include comments from Union Pacific Railroad.