Houston spending millions to move people out of cancer clusters while still approving development

Shannon Ryan Image
Wednesday, November 15, 2023
City still approving permits in 5th Ward despite alleged contamination
Testing is ongoing in Houston's Fifth Wards to link toxins to cancer, but that's not stopping the city from approving permits for developers.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- In September, Houston's City Council approved $5 million of taxpayers' money to move people out of deadly cancer clusters, identified by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, in the Greater Fifth Ward. The Houston Health Department states that the cancers are "known to be associated" with the types of chemicals found at a nearby shuttered Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific Railroad, wood treatment facility.

The strength of that link is at the center of an Environmental Protection Agency-Union Pacific Railroad investigation which kicked off last week. Yet, the city is still granting developers, including a city employee, permits to build new rental units in the area. ABC13 spoke with renters who said they were not made aware of the deadly conditions.

Camryn Easley lives across the street from the facility - once used to treat rail ties with creosote, a cancer-causing compound, with her husband, a snake, a cat, two turtles, a flying squirrel, and five dogs. Among them, is an anxious chihuahua named Spud, which she inherited Spud from her grandmother, Barbara Beal. Easley said Spud has not been the same since Beal died.

"I can tell (Spud) misses her," she explained.

In an attempt to ease Spud's grief, she said she would wrap him in Beal's hospital gown in the immediate aftermath of her death.

"He just shook," she said.

Beal died of cancer in August. Easley, who was raised by a single father on the same block, said Beal acted more like a mother than a grandmother. She inherited Beal's house, along with Spud, after her death. However, if it were up to Beal, Easley said she and her family would not be living inside the home.

"I still hear her voice," she said.

Beal long fought for relocation for Greater Fifth Ward residents. Easley thinks she and her family will likely move.

ABC13 asked Easley how many of her loved ones on the street have gotten sick.

"Pretty much all of them," she replied. Hoping to soon become a mother, she added, "I wouldn't want my kids playing in this dirt."

Easley told ABC13 she does not understand why many are moving into the neighborhood, as she and others are offered money by the city to move out.

ABC13 discovered that city employee electrician Eduardo Peña purchased several homes bordering Easley's in 2021, years after news of the plume first broke.

The city has since rubber-stamped dozens of permits for him and other developers to flip and build entirely new rentals on lots eligible for relocation.

Peña is currently trying to sell the properties as a package for $2.75 million. His HAR listing describes it as a "33-unit property, consisting of 17 residential homes on approximately 1.8 acres of land." He noted that the properties had undergone "extensive" renovations and went on to write, "Location, location, location!... This is your chance to secure an investment with incredible potential for long-term growth. Don't let it slip away!"

"I'm not sure if they know what's going on," Easley said of her new neighbors, Peña's tenants.

ABC13 photojournalist Noe Cumplido asked several renters in Spanish if they knew about the cancer clusters and contamination before they moved in - each said no.

Most, like Angel Mijalis, didn't know anything about the situation until speaking with Cumplido.

"I cannot wrap my mind around it," Mijalis said.

ABC13 asked Houston's Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello, who is heading relocation efforts, if landlords are required to disclose the information.

"Those are the issues that we're dealing with for the legal department," he explained.

City Attorney Arturo Michel declined ABC13's interview request, as did Peña.

Peña told ABC13 over the phone that he is "just building humble homes for humble people" and that "nothing's been proven," alluding to ongoing EPA testing.

"What we can't do is prevent permits from being issued, but what we can do is advise the permittee that they're in the cancer cluster area. So, we're (going to) have challenges moving forward once this program starts," Costello said. "How do you deal with the renter or the owner of the rental property in the future, preventing them from renting?"

Costello said the city is working on distributing literature in both Spanish and English to make current renters aware of their options and dissuade potential future renters.

A few blocks away, on Liberty Street, construction is underway. Developer Chris Crawford, who already has a few units in the area, told ABC13 he is putting in four more rental units.

"I feel that it's not good," Crawford admitted. "I'm just trying to recoup some of my money."

Crawford told ABC13 he was not aware of the cancer cluster when he purchased the lot for development. He said the purchase took place in 2018. City records show his LLC obtained the lot in 2022. Records show he sold the property to his mother earlier this year. Crawford confirmed it was a transfer in name only and told ABC13 he still identifies as the property's owner. When asked for clarification on the initial purchase date discrepancy and if it were tied to another property transfer, he said, "Nah. I don't want to talk about all that, man," before hanging up the phone.

Another investor, Michael Seago, claimed he did not know about the cancer cluster prior to purchase either. He purchased a home on Easley's block, Lavender Street, this October. He said he plans to flip and rent it.

"This is a strong property rights state, so within the confines of the law of what the city can do, they will do. But, if somebody owns the property and they can find a willing buyer, it's pretty sad, but we're really in the era of buyer beware," Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

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