Clean up the creosote.
Black Houstonians had been saying it for well over 20 years. They’d been talking about the smells from Union Pacific’s Englewood Railyard, where they knew that the creosote used for decades to preserve railroad ties had contaminated the soil and groundwater and settled in a plume underneath about 110 of their homes.
They didn’t know, but they knew. After the story broke that the Texas Department of State Health Services had confirmed a cancer cluster around the contamination, finding greater-than-expected incidences of several cancers of the lungs and throat, the refrains rippled across Houston.
Clean up the creosote.
It was a local version of the story that’s practically become its own genre — black community members were right all along.
Hundreds more Houstonians have since showed up to community meetings and town halls. Leaders like Rev. James Caldwell, the founding director of the Coalition of Community Organizations, have been urging everyone to stay unified in the face of what will be a long and intensely bureaucratic struggle.
It already has been a long, intensely bureaucratic struggle. Though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) asked the state to conduct the study last April after residents’ urging boiled over at a town hall with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the agency didn’t notify them when the study was completed.
The Department of State Health Services posted it online. That was it.
And it wasn’t until Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer, sent an email wondering what had happened that the study was revealed — almost four months later.
TCEQ’s inexplicable silence led to four more months of waiting. Four months, when affected residents could have been organizing to get the follow-up studies started or check on their own health.
In January, five full months after the study was posted, the city’s health department conducted a door-to-door survey, contacting about one-third of those 110 properties — 43 percent of those reported at least one cancer diagnosis.
In a neighborhood where homes are still being rebuilt after Hurricane Harvey, though, where residents are dealing with decades of lead poisoning and fighting the widening of I-45 that would displace their neighbors and produce even more air pollution, it will take more than cleaning up the creosote to serve the cause of justice.
‘The cumulative effects of everything’
Freedmen first breathed life into the Fifth Ward shortly after the end of the Civil War. Mount Vernon United Methodist Church is the neighborhood’s oldest institution, founded in 1865 by Rev. Toby Gregg.
By the turn of the century, the neighborhood became predominantly black and was thriving well into the 1950s, with dozens of black-owned businesses, many of them clustered around the lively Lyons Avenue, which was host to one of the nation’s first racially integrated art shows, “The DeLuxe Show.” Barbara Jordan, George Foreman and the Geto Boys have called the neighborhood home.
But integration and the disruptive construction of freeways took a toll. One historian said Fifth Ward had been “literally crucified,” as I-10 and U.S. 59 formed “a cross pattern through its heart.”
Now, a new analysis of data about everything from access to hospitals to the number of nearby Superfund sites finds that Fifth Ward is one of the most vulnerable communities in the Houston region. Here, many sources of pollution create what experts call “cumulative impacts” and “chronic exposures.”
That means that residents have pollutants coming at them from above and below, and they have for a long time. TCEQ, the state agency meant to protect our health and environment, doesn’t take either into account when considering a permit for another metal recycler or concrete batch plant in a neighborhood with too many of them already. During Hurricane Harvey, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General concluded that TCEQ wasn’t using thresholds that considered the health impacts of exposure to more than one air pollutant at a time.
That needs to change. For Dr. Hopkins, focusing on one environmental hazard at a time is simply not as productive as looking at these cumulative effects. Looking at the entirety of a community’s health, the city can find more efficient solutions, from water to housing to air to permitting.
Hopkins notes the connection to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s “Complete Communities” initiative, which seeks to enhance access to affordable housing, jobs and transportation options, among other resources.
Community groups like COCO embody this approach. Rev. Caldwell founded COCO in 2008 out of a desire to share information between community organizations and connect citizens to these resources.
For Rev. Caldwell, education is essential — the more information people have, the better equipped they are to make choices for themselves and the community and push back when decision-makers (whether public or private) aren’t listening. “We want to make sure that you are prepared to go to the gunfight,” Caldwell said. “Because there are going to be some gunfights, and we don’t want you to have a pocket knife when you go there. We want you to have some ammo to go in there and fight with.”
And in the continued fight against displacement and gentrification in a neighborhood that had been deliberately segregated through the racist practice of redlining, Caldwell believes that environmental justice is central.
He believes that business owners won’t want to work where there is hazardous waste and that parents will want to bus their kids out of a community with air pollution, leading to school closures.
Though he emphasizes that it is the individual community members who make COCO strong, he serves as a vital advocate, acting as the eyes and ears for the community on meetings for the Citizens’ Advisory Board to the Port of Houston and air monitoring meetings, among others. “You can do the Fight for $15, you can do the housing, you can do the health care, you can do all of the infrastructure, address them all, but unless you are willing to address the environment where you’re living, none of the rest of it matters, because you may not be around,” he said. “It’s one issue, but there’s so many dots connected to it, so we try to get them to see the bigger picture.”
‘The Fifth Ward is my home’
Now, though cancer and creosote dominate the hashtags and headlines, the Fifth Ward continues to deal with the bigger picture.
Lead paint clean-up efforts have just begun. The Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city more than $9 million — the most HUD has ever given — for abatement and remediation in Census tracts with low-income communities and the highest number of lead-poisoned children.
HUD also awarded $3 million for homes outside that area.
And, as the fight continues against TxDOT’s proposed I-45 widening, which would place more than 40 schools, parks with playgrounds and hospitals within a 500-foot threshold near the expanded freeway where traffic-related air pollution is most harmful, including Bruce Elementary in Fifth Ward, Dr. Hopkins and the health department are working to treat the asthma that already plagues the neighborhood.
Key to that effort is the city’s new environmental mobile unit, which provides programs at schools with high asthma rates, in an effort to keep kids out of the hospital and in the classroom.
The city is also developing strategies to build on existing community networks. They are developing a block captain program for the Fifth Ward: one person in a given area is in charge of mediating with the city, telling city officials what homes would be good for a given program and then sharing those resources with the affected residents.
Then, those captains would already be in place as communication channels in the event of other environmental hazards.
“We have a right to stay in our communities,” Rev. Caldwell said in a 2019 video. “We have a right to choose where we want to live. The Fifth Ward is my home.”
For now, in the wake of the confirmation of the cancer cluster, another epidemiological study is required to link the cancers to the creosote. That will take months. Union Pacific can claim that correlation is not causation. But IMPACT Fifth Ward, a community group, is linking their shared goals to them:
- “We demand that Union Pacific clean up the environment to the best extent possible for now and future generations.
- “We want Union Pacific to fund volatilization testing to determine whether creosote is in the air.
- “We want Union Pacific to give back to the community.
- “We want to speak on behalf of the many residents and homeowners that have been impacted by the toxic chemicals.
- “We want industrial companies out of our community.
- “We demand transparency from industrial companies that operate in our neighborhoods.”
One Friday morning In February, IMPACT led a march, which drew about 50 residents holding balloons, signs painted with tombstones and photos of loved ones, all together in front of the chain-link fence at the edge of the railyard that has claimed so many lives. “We’re not going anywhere,” they chanted.
They know what they need to thrive. They persist. Ever the preacher, Rev. Caldwell likes to quote Hosea 4:6 as his guiding philosophy: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
And he for one just isn’t going to let that happen.
Vázquez is a junior at Yale University, where she is an associate editor for Broad Recognition, the undergraduate feminist publication. She can be found on Twitter @capaciousmood.
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