Mayor Sylvester Turner announced plans Thursday to form a “strike force” to relocate residents living near a contaminated rail yard in northeast Houston and called on Union Pacific to help fund it.

A Union Pacific spokeswoman said the company will take no action on relocation until a site study being conducted jointly with the Environmental Protection Agency is finished. The testing is expected to be completed in December. 

“UP has taken no action in response to the demands of the city, the county and Bayou City Initiative for relocations of people living next door or right on top of this site,” Turner said at a City Hall press conference. “UP insists that 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 the UP’s CEO, UP has insisted the time is not yet right.” 

At issue is a site used for decades for wood preservation by Southern Pacific Railroad, which merged with Union Pacific in 1998. Workers at the Kashmere Gardens site used creosote, a tarry substance derived from coal and wood to coat railroad ties. Creosote contains several known carcinogens.

Specifics of the mayor’s proposed strike force were unclear Thursday as the city will have to come up with about $25 million to buy out and relocate nearby families. Turner said the city will look for funding internally and externally, including Union Pacific, to cover the cost of the relocations. 

Area residents long have expressed concerns about the number of cancer deaths in the neighborhood and pointed to the old rail yard as the potential source of contamination. The Texas Department of State Health Services identified a cancer cluster – higher-than-expected rates of cancer – in the vicinity of the rail yard in 2019.

Hundreds of residents since have sued UP over the contamination. The city, county and nonprofit Bayou City Initiative also notified Union Pacific of their intent to sue due to the contamination.

“Union Pacific will pay for what it is responsible for,” company spokeswoman Toni Harrison said. “Until we have comprehensive sampling and testing with the correct data sizes to make those decisions.”

She reiterated that the company only acquired the rail yard when it merged with Southern Pacific in 1997, and since has completed remediation work at the site.

Turner said because he will only be in office until the end of the year, he wanted to get the strike force rolling now. The team will be composed of representatives from the city’s departments of health and human services and housing and community development, as well as real estate, recovery and legal teams. 

The goal will be to move families to safer spots not far from the current homes, but officials were unsure Thursday whether those relocations would be voluntary. 

Several community residents joined city officials for the news conference to speak about the impact of the contamination on their lives and the frustration they feel. Former Houston ISD trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, whose husband has been fighting cancer for the past nine months, spoke out about the pain the contamination has caused residents. 

“Just imagine losing your child, your son, your daughter, your niece, your nephew, your mother, your father,” Blueford-Daniels said. “So, don’t look at this as a surface issue. Look at this as a heartfelt issue.”

A tearful Pamela Matthews, whose mother died a year ago, said she was reluctant to speak at the news conference. 

“Because it’s hard living in a community where no one seems to care about the things that are going on in that community,” Matthews said. “I’ve lived here all my life. My kids grew up here, my grandkids, there was a family home. We invested everything we had into that property … We didn’t think for one second we were at risk.

Joetta Stevenson, a two-time cancer survivor from the community, comforted Matthews on stage. 

“They count on our uneducated ignorance, they count on it, because that’s how they (Union Pacific) are able to move at a snail’s pace,” Stevenson said. “I don’t know what they thought, that we would just crawl into a hole, but guess we came out fighting and we’re not going to stop fighting.” 

In response to community concerns, the city conducted soil testing in the community in 2022, finding trace levels of dioxins, a cancer-causing chemical that can take a long time to break down in the environment. Because of that, the mayor’s office has asked for quick action from Union Pacific, including relocation for residents located near the contamination and the creation of a free health clinic. 

“In terms of facts, what we have is contamination that we know has been there for years,” said Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. “If that dioxin was present now (in the soil), it was present in the past and that has been the exposure route for this community for a very long time.” 

There have been examples of chemical contamination in the area for years, Hopkins said, including an apartment manager complaining in the 1970s about vinyl chloride – which can cause permanent liver damage and cancer – and other residents complaining about creosote washing into drainage ditches in front of people’s homes. 

“Time is the enemy of people living in a highly exposed and dangerous zone with limited means to do anything else,” Turner said. “How many more people must be diagnosed with cancer?”

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Houston Landing. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...