July 13, 2023 -- Standing alongside Houstonians who have lost loved ones to cancer, Mayor Sylvester Turner urgently called on Union Pacific Railroad to buy out or relocate residents living near UP's contaminated Houston Wood Preserving site.
The mayor also announced he had created a Strike Team to begin work on a program to help relocate residents living above the creosote plume and in a two and three-block radius around the site.
The state of Texas found four different types of cancer clusters when it focused on the census tracts directly abutting the Union Pacific site. These include the larynx, liver, lung, bronchus, and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In total, there were 79 more cancer cases in this small area from these clusters than expected. While the City remains supportive of the Environmental Protection Agency's order with UP to expand its investigation and cleanup of creosote sites, the railroad has taken no action in response to the demands of the City, Harris County, and Bayou City Initiative to relocate people living next door to the site, according to Mayor Turner.
"UP insists those issues are on the table for discussion, but when we have raised them repeatedly over the last year, including in direct recent conversations with UP's CEO, UP has insisted the time is not ripe, and that action on relocations must wait for the results of further investigation," said Mayor Turner. "But time is the enemy of people living in the highly exposed and dangerous zone with limited means to do anything. How many people must be diagnosed with cancer? How many more people - including children must die?"
The Strike Team includes representatives of the City's Health and Human Services, Housing and Community Development, Real Estate, Recovery, and Legal teams, along with outside resources. Mayor Turner underscored the process is complex, with many issues and interests to accommodate, and that his administration will explore additional funding from all available sources, including federal Justice 40 and other environmental justice funds. "Our goal will be to help residents in these areas who want to move successfully to nearby locations out of harm's way at no costs."
In a written statement, Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams added, "We in the Health Department believe that people are still at risk. More testing is likely to reveal what we already know. Dioxin is present in the soil. We know a creosote plume is under 110 homes. People have already expressed an interest in relocation and access to health care. Let's respect their interests by being responsive to their expressed interest regarding relocation and access to health care."
During the news conference, an emotional Pamela Matthews talked about the death of her mother, who lived in the cancer cluster. "It is hard living in a community where nobody seems to care. A year ago today, my mom passed from cancer. My kids, grandkids, and I have a right to live without being in harm's way. I refuse to let this happen to any more members of my family. Why should UP make all this money, harm all these people, and not be held accountable? Don't we matter? Thank you, Mayor Turner. Thank you for fighting for us," she said.