Close to eight years have passed since elevated levels of radioactive particles were found in the drinking water of the Chasewood subdivision in eastern Fort Bend County.

In their quest to confirm whether the water contamination is linked to cancer cases in Chasewood, residents are participating in an independent survey to track cancer occurrences. This May, Jacqueline Smith, an environmental scientist who has worked as an epidemiologist, will wrap up a nine-month health survey of the neighborhood’s nearly 400 homes.

Smith was recommended to residents through her capacity as chairwoman of the NAACP Houston branch’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee. She said her survey form was designed to be easy for residents to understand.

“When I met with Chasewood, they said they wanted a tool that could be looked at pretty quickly,” Smith said of her survey form.

A second opinion

In March of 2016, at the request of concerned residents, the Texas Department of State Health Services released a study to identify possible cancer clusters in the Chasewood area.

Although DSHS determined that no statistically significant rates of cancers existed in the area, some residents were dissatisfied with the scope of the study. DSHS’s study survey included six cancer types: lung, pancreatic, liver, oropharynx, and lymphocytic and myeloid leukemias.

The Chasewood Civic Club and Fort Bend Super Neighborhood 41 are taking different measures to assess the scope of the contamination effects.

The civic club felt the DSHS survey—the scope of which was crafted by the state at the request of the Houston Health Department—should have looked for more cancer types. The study was also limited to data from the Texas Cancer Registry within a 10-year period from 2003-12 but residents were drinking from the wells 21 to 34 years before then.

“For this kind of analysis, it’s really important to understand that we're comparing what to expect versus what’s observed. We don’t look at the cause of the cancer. That’s not something we can ascertain,” said Emily Hall, a senior epidemiologist at DSHS who oversaw the 2016 Chasewood cancer cluster investigation. “That’s just one of the limitations of this kind of analysis. There’s always going to be issues.”

The study showed half of the analyzed cancers occurred at a rate that was “statistically significantly lower than expected,” according to the 2016 report.

However, the state agency’s report did not limit their examination to the households in Chasewood. Instead, it analyzed cancer occurrences within four adjoining census tracts.

According to DSHS protocol, one census tract is the smallest geographic area that can be studied. The city of Houston selected the four adjoining census tracts because some homes in Chasewood fell within those tracts, said Mamta Singh, a research fellow at the Houston Health Department who oversaw the cancer cluster study for the city.

Chasewood still investigating well water contaminationSome residents are turning to Smith’s independent survey, which was given directly to the civic club and distributed to residents. Unlike the DSHS study, it asks respondents who lived in the neighborhood from 1985-2016 to list any cancer diagnoses they have as well as how long they drank tap water.

Neither the DSHS nor Smith’s survey account for residents who may have lived in Chasewood but moved away. Smith said about 25-30 percent of households responded to the survey and if enough cases of a particular cancer are reported, that could meet the DSHS threshold for a new cluster study.

Starting at the source

Although it is in Houston, Chasewood is just inside the northeastern Fort Bend County line and outside the Missouri City city limits. It used three groundwater wells drilled between 1969 and 1982 in the now-dissolved Greenridge Municipal Utility District.

Water from Greenridge MUD wells serving the neighborhood tested above the legal limit for radioactive gross alpha particles in 2009. That same year, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, notified a gas well operator that two abandoned gas wells within 1.5 miles of Chasewood’s groundwater wells needed to be plugged because “they will cause or will likely cause a serious threat of pollution or injury to the public health,” according to the notice.

The wells were placed on the state’s 10-year inactive well list in 2010 and were plugged by the state in 2015, RRC spokesperson Ramona Nye said.

"Protection of public safety and our natural resources is the Railroad Commission’s highest priority,” Nye said.

Whether the two are linked is still undetermined because residents did not test the water before the wells and connected holding tanks were removed. Last summer, Phyllis Bailey, a Chasewood resident and community liaison, asked for a state investigation in front of the Texas Sunset Commission.

“We don’t know exactly when the contamination began, but the impact to our community has been catastrophic,” Bailey said to the commission.

Alanna Reed, public information officer for Houston’s public works and engineering department, confirmed the city switched residents completely off groundwater wells and onto surface water sourced from the Trinity River in November 2010. The city notified residents of the radioactive particles in their groundwater and of plans to switch to surface water in 2010.

“The Chasewood groundwater well has been used only when necessary to maintain critical water pressure levels during peak demand,” then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s 2010 letter to residents said. “We want to stress that neighborhood water quality has always been safe.”

Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulations restrict the legal amount of gross alpha particles to 15 picocuries per liter—Chasewood’s water had 16.9 picocuries, according to the city of Houston.

City workers removed the groundwater tanks and pumps connected to the wells in 2011 and the tanks were later demolished in 2012, Reed said.

Chasewood still investigating well water contamination“I was assured Chasewood had independence for their own tests,” said Mary Salsman, civic club treasurer. “The following morning, the [city of Houston] workers were out and they capped all the wells, and they started dismantling the reservoir that sits behind the club house.”

Carl David Evans, president of Fort Bend Super Neighborhood 41, said the pumps were connected to pipes bringing water into people’s homes. State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, said if residents had worked with an attorney sooner they might have been able to test the water before the tanks were destroyed.

“If the water was contaminated, most likely the things the water was being housed in—the pumps, the tanks—was contaminated as well,” he said.

Chasewood's residential water lines were never replaced, which Evans said he fears could continue harming public health even with a new water source.

Options Limited

To date, no office or agency has claimed responsibility for the water contamination. Houston owned the water wells but the gas wells were operated by OG Co. Inc, according to a letter from the RRC. No reason has been given as to why OG waited six years to follow the RRC’s direction to cap the wells. OG Co. Inc. could not be reached for comment.

As president of Super Neighborhood 41, which includes subdivisions, such as Quail Run, Ridgemont, and Briargate, Evans is searching for an environmental attorney to pursue litigation on behalf of Chasewood and any other affected residential subdivision.

Reynolds, who sits on the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee, met with residents about the issue on multiple occasions. He said he communicated with the Railroad Commission and TCEQ, but he did not expect either agency to take further action.

“We met with one [lawyer] and he said a case of this magnitude, it’s going to require a firm or lot of attorneys,” Evans said.