Shared from the 2/15/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Fifth Ward residents tired of fighting contamination and seeing no action

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Melissa Phillip / Staff photographer

Kathy Blueford-Daniels, left, and Kendra London say they shouldn’t still be pointing out that their Fifth Ward neighborhood has higher rates of certain cancers than state researchers expect to find.

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Blueford-Daniels talks about health concerns in the area near her home from creosote contamination.

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Melissa Phillip / Staff photographer

So far, state environmental regulators and Union Pacific are still working out a cleanup plan for the site, where creosote hasn’t been used since 1984.

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Kathy Blueford-Daniels, left, and Kendra London said they’ll continue to push for accountability.

Kendra London stood in the middle of the street where she grew up and still lives, yet again doing what she didn’t want to have to do. She was explaining the injustice of what was happening to her community.

Residents in this historically Black neighborhood had done too much of that.

On this day, Valentine’s Day, at this time, noon, another neighborhood activist had proposed they hold a protest. They might have been out there now in front of the contaminated Union Pacific rail yard, holding pictures of people they loved who had died.

But London spoke up at that community meeting last week. No more picketing, she said.

London didn’t want still to be talking about the fact that decades after the potential danger was known the rail yard in Fifth Ward remains contaminated with creosote, a chemical sludge suspected to cause cancer. She didn’t want still to be pointing out that the area has higher rates of certain cancers than state researchers expect to find.

It wasn’t their fault their neighborhood was poisoned, London and her neighbors knew. They were the victims, with medical bills to pay and family members to care for, up against a giant company that bought the property after creosote was used there to preserve the wood in rail ties.

Why was this their problem to fix?

And why should they keep putting in the time, effort and energy to picket if it hadn’t worked before? Who would care? What did they really expect would change?

So there was no protest. But London decided it was worth a try to call her activism mentor, Kathy Blueford-Daniels, and zip home on her lunch break in her black Honda Civic to tell a Houston Chronicle reporter the story — again, the same story — of her frustration with all her neighborhood was up against.

Maybe this time someone would hear it.

Maybe this time they’d get what living so close to a toxic site felt like.

Maybe someone would do something.

The 40-year-old stepped out of her car in jeans, a blazer and high heels.

“I’m tired of hearing about, ‘Hold on and wait,’” London said, standing in front of her family’s home and looking toward the sun. “The ‘hold on and wait’ is over. Somebody has to show results.”

So far, state environmental regulators and Union Pacific are still working out a clean-up plan for the site, where creosote hasn’t been used since 1984. The company says residents are not at risk. Residents don’t get their drinking water from underground, contaminated soil was covered with concrete and site monitoring is ongoing. The railroad followed state requirements.

London didn’t know as a kid to worry about all this. No one did. She ate oatmeal and played jacks at Ms. Clara’s at the end of the block. She got frozen cups of Kool-Aid at Mrs. Valentine’s around the corner. She bought groceries for Aunt Sis nearby, who taught her how to bake a cake.

Fifth Ward is a “village community,” said 64-year-old Blueford-Daniels, a place where longtime neighbors are considered cousins. Many were maids and porters and Ship Channel workers, not attorneys. London, a social worker, couldn’t help but push for accountability now that she knows the threat.

She felt sad that this perpetual fight was the new normal, but on Monday she was controlling her story instead of picketing, and maybe there was a small victory in that. Her community wasn’t going through those same motions of staging a protest.

Monday was different.

“It’s a dance that we do,” she said. “We’re not dancing.”

They’d danced long enough. They didn’t want to watch this fight from heaven. They needed a new way to survive. emily.foxhall@chron.com

“I’m tired of hearing about, ‘Hold on and wait.’ The ‘hold on and wait’ is over. Somebody has to show results.”
Kendra London

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