A toxic ash heap on land near Buffalo Bayou in Second Ward that once housed city incinerators could be cleaned up and turned into a park under a plan approved by City Council Wednesday.

Councilmembers unanimously voted to transfer the Velasco Street incinerator site from the city to the Houston Land Bank to allow the government-affiliated nonprofit to seek federal clean-up funds.

The land bank said it will need millions of dollars to remediate the site, which is piled with up to 35 feet of ash from incinerators that burned Houston trash for decades.

Two brick smokestacks loom over the site’s nearly five acres, which are covered in trees and surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Someday soon, land bank leaders hope, the property will be transformed into a bucolic park a short walk to the bayou trail or Navigation Boulevard.

The park also would border a controversial, 400-unit Houston Housing Authority development that has drawn criticism for sitting so close to the toxic site. Farther to the west, private developments have sprouted up in recent years.

New housing under construction off of Middle Street bordering Buffalo Bayou in Houston
New housing under construction off of Middle Street bordering Buffalo Bayou, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the city operated municipal trash incinerators on the North Velasco Street site. Few traces of the trash-disposal operation remain beside the twin brick chimneys and the hulking pile of ash.

The Velasco incinerators, in the historically Latino Second Ward, were among many waste sites  Houston placed in Black and brown neighborhoods. At one point, all of the city’s dumps and six of its eight incinerators were in majority-Black neighborhoods, according to research by Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who is considered the father of the environmental justice movement.

“The history of waste disposal siting in Houston has been a history of racism. Unofficially zoned for people of color,” Bullard said.

In recent years, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has taken steps to address those historic inequities. A former incinerator site in Sunnyside is being transformed into a solar farm.

The clean-up in Second Ward will face costly obstacles that thwarted redevelopment in the past. Ranging from four feet to 35 feet high, the Velasco ash pile contains arsenic, lead, mercury, PCBs, dioxins and furans, according to soil samples.

District H Council member Karla Cisneros, who represents the area, said the contamination put the property on the radar of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has extended a “grace period” to the city to fix the problem.

“I really am very excited about this opportunity. This was a really very problematic site for the city. The city was the one who created the problem with the incinerator,” she said at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

The solution the city came up with involves transferring the property to the Houston Land Bank under the ordinance Council passed Wednesday. Because the city contaminated the site in the first place, it is ineligible for Environmental Protection Agency clean-up grants, Cisneros said.

Plans for the clean-up and the park are at an early stage. The land bank has posted several environmental assessments of the site on a dedicated website.

The reports lay out three alternatives for cleaning up the site. One would involve leveling the ash on the site and covering it with a clay cap. The second largely would follow the first, while extending Ball Street west of Velasco to expand access.

The third alternative envisions removing the toxic ash from the site altogether for disposal elsewhere. That proposal could cost up to $22 million, according to the assessment, which described it as “neither a cost-effective nor necessary strategy.”

All three proposals call for keeping the site’s distinctive chimneys.

The ordinance passed Wednesday gives the Houston Land Bank five years to clean the site. When the remediation is complete, the land bank can sell the site to an unnamed “partner,” subject to City Council approval.

A view of downtown Houston through a fence near the site of the former Velasco Street incinerator site in Second Ward
A view of downtown Houston through a fence near the site of the former Velasco Street incinerator site in Second Ward, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Houston. City Council on Wednesday approved the first phase of a plan to turn the site near Buffalo Bayou into a public park. (Matt Sledge / Houston Landing)

The site long has been envisioned as one part of the larger, ongoing transformation of Buffalo Bayou from downtown east to the Turning Basin. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s president confirmed Wednesday that it eventually could take ownership of the site.

“The intent is for Buffalo Bayou Partnership to be the partner due to our long and ongoing efforts working on parks and trails along this stretch of the bayou. However, there are many steps that need to be taken for this to ultimately happen,” Anne Olson said.

Cisneros said she has pushed to ensure community members are consulted on the site’s redevelopment. For Bullard, that step is critical to ensure the same residents who suffered from the incinerators reap the benefits of the park.

“We have to make sure that these investments don’t push out our communities, whether it’s Third Ward, Fifth Ward or what’s happening along the bayou,” he said. “Our environmental justice position is that the community that lived with that toxic site should have a major say in how it’s developed.”

The Houston Land Bank did not respond to questions about the project, including the expected cost. The nonprofit has released various estimates of $2 to 5 million, $4 to $5 million and $7 million. Land bank officials did not comment on whether it will need additional funding to transform the site into a park.

Residents have been invited to attend a public meeting to learn more at the Houston Community College’s Felix Fraga Academic Campus, 301 Drennan Street, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. on Oct. 26.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...