Shared from the 3/1/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Residents want creosote removed

Brett Coomer / Staff photographer

Delores Peterson, left, and Dianne Sutton Osborne join a group of Fifth Ward residents protesting environmental pollution.

Activist Sandra Edwards didn’t want Black History Month to pass her by without again calling attention to Union Pacific’s failure to remove all the toxic creosote that seeped into the groundwater and soil at the end of her street in Fifth Ward.

Residents in this historically Black community are tired of fighting for change — but still they press on, promising they’re not going to stop. About a dozen gathered on a sunny but cold Monday morning to hold signs by the site and publicly ask yet again for the company to clean up its contamination.

“Our voices still need to be heard,” Cookie Straughter said. “It needs to be a continuous thing, to let them know we mean business.”

Rail ties were long treated with creosote in the U.S. to preserve them. Now creosote is considered a likely carcinogen. And while wood hasn’t been treated at this site for decades, the chemicals remain in the ground, a situation that residents in Fifth Ward say people in richer, whiter communities wouldn’t be asked to tolerate.

On Monday, as they scrawled messages on cardboard and posters, they remembered the generations that came before them in this community and hoped this fight wouldn’t last past their own deaths. Some recalled growing up alongside the rail yard, playing on the tracks and smelling polluted air that kept them up at night.

Back then, no one knew their environment might be dangerous. State researchers recently found elevated rates of certain types of cancer in the surrounding community.

“What about, we have been forgotten?” asked Walter Mallett, standing in Edwards’ driveway and trying to come up with a phrase to write on his sign.

“OK,” Joetta Stevenson encouraged.

“We’re the forgotten people,” he said, continuing to brainstorm.

Union Pacific is still working with the state to come up with a plan for addressing the issue. They’ve covered some of the soil with concrete. Residents aren’t supposed to drink water from groundwater wells. Instead, they’ve been asked to use the city’s water instead. The company says they aren’t at risk and site monitoring is ongoing.

The rail line said in a statement Monday that it had followed state permitting and remediation requirements since it acquired the site in 1997. It continued: “We’ve consistently met with many stakeholders and are planning meetings with more in the future.”

The community’s fight, organized by a group called IMPACT, has drawn attention from the federal level. EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited late last year and promised to submit feedback on the proposed cleanup plan.

Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, the group gathered across the street from the rail yard and held their signs proudly. “We are the power,” one sign said. “We are one for our people” read another. “I love 5th Ward” read a third. They represented different generations, taking turns shouting into a microphone and addressing the media.

“We will not be silenced,” Edwards said.

They have been watching closely as the company’s plans slowly move ahead. State regulators have been planning to hold a second public meeting for residents to give input on the cleanup plans. There was no doubt: People here want to be heard.

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