After continuous concerns about an alleged cancer cluster in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee announced July 5 intentions to sue Union Pacific Corp.

The lawsuit is being filed in relation to the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, which gives power to control hazardous waste to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to a July 5 press release from the city of Houston, Union Pacific has been accused of having a connection to “longstanding” contamination from its Houston Wood Preserving Works creosote treatment facility at 4910 Liberty Road, Houston.

According to the EPA, the site ceased operating as a wood preserving facility in 1984 under the ownership of Southern Pacific. It was acquired by Union Pacific in 1997 when it merged with Southern Pacific.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, creosote is a “mixture of many chemicals” that can be used to preserve wood, and long-term contact with it can lead to an increased risk for cancer.

For those in Fifth Ward, some officials suspect that waste from the contaminant has seeped into the soil and groundwater, leading to adverse effects on residents. According to the EPA, the groundwater is not used as a source for drinking water.

“Residents of the Fifth Ward, a historically Black and underserved community, have dealt with negative health effects from hazardous waste and chemicals for decades,” Menefee said in the release. “Union Pacific should be held accountable for the harm this facility has caused to its neighbors.”

In a 2019 analysis, the Texas Department of State Health Services found elevated counts of cancer in the surrounding areas around the Union Pacific rail yard. According to a March 20, 2020, Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer, cancers for both children and adults were found above the expected range, or greater than what would be expected based on cancer rates in Texas.

However, according to the DSHS, “the analysis doesn’t point to what the causes of the cancers are.” Other lifestyle factors could contribute to cancer, such as smoking and diet.

The Notices of Intent to Sue will be sent in the following weeks to Union Pacific along with the EPA, the U.S. attorney general and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The notice stated both Houston and Harris County are filing a citizen suit in federal court to seek “injunctive relief against UP to address its dangerous storage and disposal of hazardous waste” at the facility, the release said.

“Communities of color disproportionately bear the burden of industrial pollution,” Turner said in a statement. “The UP facility here is a textbook example. UP can and must take all necessary steps to address the contamination from its dangerous chemicals and the adverse consequences to our residents.”

In an email, Union Pacific officials told Community Impact Newspaper the company's focus has always been and will continue to be on protecting the environment and the health and safety of the public. In extensive studies done at Union Pacific sites, no creosote exposure pathways to residents have been found, officials said.

"Union Pacific sympathizes with residents who are dealing with medical issues and those with health concerns," officials said. "We have met with the community many times over the years and will continue to engage residents, as well as the city of Houston and Harris County, as our remediation work at the site continues."

The legal stance is the latest in a series of actions the city and county have taken. In the past, the two have worked together to urge state and federal authorities to remove the creosote contaminants in Kashmere Gardens and create a strategy to address the issue, the release said.

Supporting the city and county is Jim Blackburn, a Houston-based environmental attorney and founder of the Bayou City Initiative—a nonprofit aimed at educating Houstonians on flooding while supporting policies that will help the city become a more resilient region. According to the release, Blackburn has proposed coordinating with the city and county’s legal efforts.

"Fifth Ward residents made it clear to us that more must be done to protect their community from the dangerous chemicals lurking beneath their homes," Blackburn said in a statement. "I commend our city and county leaders for working with the community to fight for a clean and safe environment."

During a Jan. 25 public session, more than 150 people signed up to speak against the no- approved Navigation Center that will be located on Jensen Drive, citing concerns of the cancer cluster and asking City Council to address that issue instead. However, during the same meeting, Turner assured residents that he was actively working with the EPA to fix the issue.