City of Houston greenlit hundreds of development projects in cancer cluster area, report shows

Shannon Ryan Image
Thursday, February 8, 2024
Houston greenlit development projects in cancer cluster area: Report
13 Investigates how the City of Houston greenlit hundreds of new development projects in an area deemed a cancer cluster.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The City of Houston paused permitting and commissioned its own investigation after 13 Investigates broke news of development in a cancer cluster and industrial contamination site.

The site is where the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at Superfund authority in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens.

The city report, released Wednesday, outlines hundreds of development projects greenlit by the city from 2019 to 2024 despite the city having recognized elevated cancer rates in the area back in 2019.

A wood treatment facility operated by Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific Railroad, operated in the neighborhood until the 1980s. The facility used creosote, which the Environmental Protection Agency has listed as a "probable human carcinogen," citing human cancer clusters and mice studies but otherwise "limited evidence."

The Texas Department of State Health Services confirms a cancer cluster in the Fifth Ward neighborhood surrounding the creosote plume.

RELATED: EPA testing groundwater for possible link between contamination and cancer clusters

"If you look at this, removing the cancer cluster, this neighborhood is seeing significant rebuild. It's a wonderful thing we like to see these in our communities, but the fact of the matter is in 2019, we said that the land is killing you to these folks," Mayor John Whitmire's Deputy Chief of Staff Steven David said.

The report analyzed three zones identified by the city: the immediate area over the creosote plume and surrounding areas with or suspected to have elevated levels of dioxins.

"Dioxin is a highly toxic compound associated with liver cancer and other severe health risks," the Houston Health Department says.

According to the report, the city issued 88 single-family and 17 multi-family permits in the area from January 2019 to December 2023.

As of Wednesday, there were 71 active permits in the area, with the most recent one issued on Jan. 1.

Some of those permits went to the General Land Office, which means the state used them to rebuild homes people lost in Hurricane Harvey. One of those GLO permits was issued the same month the former Mayor Sylvester Turner's administration set aside $5 million to move people out of the area.

The report also states that under Turner's administration, Houston City Council held a "general belief that permitting had been halted or slowed down" in the cancer cluster.

ABC13 asked Council Member Tarsha Jackson, who has represented the area since 2020, why she held that belief.

"We get our information from Public Works. The administration," she replied. Jackson explained that she believed development was occurring outside of the cancer cluster.

The report also found the cancer cluster was part of Turner's "complete communities" project. Metro built six new bus stops "recently" in the area. In 2024, 8.6 miles of asphalt were laid over the city's roadways.

"Charitably, we were not communicating with ourselves," David said.

Sandra Edwards told ABC13 she feels vindicated by the report. Edwards lives on top of the creosote plume and has long raised concerns about development in the area.

"I feel like it's a weight lifted," she said, excitedly. Still, Edwards said she feels the city dropped the ball.

ABC13 asked Jackson who she felt dropped the ball.

"I don't know who dropped the ball, but at the end of the day, you have Houston Public Works, who is responsible for issuing permits," she said.

Due to complex property rights laws in the State of Texas, Houston Public Works needed a directive from the administration, specifically the city attorney, to stop or pause permitting -- which is something they did only this month.

On Wednesday, after the report was presented, the council voted to give $2 million to the Houston Land Bank to assist residents with relocation. ABC13 spoke exclusively with its President, Christa Stoneham.

"We already own some inventory in the Fifth Ward area," Stoneham said. "What we're seeking to do is to help move forward on some of the testing that we already own, and then the properties will be used for construction."

There is yet to be a timeframe for when relocation will begin. City officials told ABC13 they plan to focus on assessing residents' needs by working with Family Houston, a social services organization, until the EPA wraps up its testing within the next six months or so.

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