'They're killing us' 5th ward neighbors say of contamination from railyard

Erica Simon Image
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
Fifth Ward babies are latest to see effect of creosote contamination
Since 2019, we've been telling you about the plight of neighbors in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens living near the Union Pacific railyard and the contaminated groundwater. But now, they're still experiencing consequences. What the latest study showed.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- People in a Houston-area neighborhood said the land they're living on is literally killing them.

Just yards away from the Union Pacific Railyard off Liberty Street, a group of neighbors gather to talk. They're rattling off how many children they know born with a condition or birth defect.

"We all had to deal with it. I know at least every person I grew up with within this area," Kashmere Garden's resident Nakia Osbourne said. "I'm 44 right now, almost 45. Half of them have a child that has a disability."

Osbourne's son, Charlie, was one of them. He was born with autism and severe intellectual disabilities. He died in 2014 at the age of 13 from a burn accident, but Osbourne said his life proves what everyone already knows. Creosote, once used at the Union Pacific facility, hit the community hard.

"They destroyed a lot of people's lives," Osburne said. "Because people were dying from cancer. Mothers were dying from cancer like crazy. And now the kids. Now it's trickling down to the kids. The great-grandkids."

In March 2020, the Texas Department of State Health Services published a study on birth defects in children living near the railyard. The Houston Health Department requested the evaluation in response to public concern.

SEE ALSO: Residents and mayor demand accountability for Kashmere Gardens 'cancer cluster'

Initial data showed that from 2000 to 2016, Gastroschisis was twice as common in that area compared to Harris County as a whole. Gastroschisis is a problem with the belly wall that leaves the intestines exposed. The state says once they factored in that young mothers are more likely to have babies with that condition, the babies born there weren't sicker than any other neighborhood.

Sandra Edwards, who's been on the front line for the neighborhood, says no. Things really are as bad as they seem.

"This is out here and it's real. They're killing us. They're killing babies before they even get here," she explained.

Jackie Medcalf is the Executive Director of Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, a nonprofit grassroots group. She's been helping Edwards and her neighbors.

"This report showed some really alarming things for moms. For people of the community," Medcalf said. "Our children are the most vulnerable, and now, we're seeing in this community, have a higher rate of terrible birth defects."

Medcalf found out about this study in April 2021, more than a year after it was released. The Houston Health Department says it did notify some community members, but perhaps it was overlooked or misinterpreted. Regardless, Medcalf says comparing birth defects to a highly diseased county like Harris makes no sense.

"We need the state to compare the prevalence of birth defects in this community to the state average. Right now, they've only compared it to averages across Harris County. We need them to be comparing them to more normalcy across the State of Texas," she said.

The people who've called this swath of the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens home for generations feel unheard and left to fend for themselves. In August 2019, a Department of State Health Services study came out showing they had higher than normal adult cancers. According to the EPA, that is mostly due to cancer-causing agents in the environment. Another DSHS study months later showed children in that area had higher than normal leukemia rates.

SEE ALSO: Residents say high cancer rate caused by nearby rail yard

Now, they're talking about birth defects and complications.

"This (is) the latest blow upside the head. I thought I had hit a home run, and then a ball came and hit me upside the head and knocked me down," Edwards said. "I didn't even make it to home base. They left everybody over here for dead. I mean, there's proof. You can see it. There's only five left."

In an email sent to Medcalf, DSHS addressed the area surrounding the Union Pacific railyard, saying: "This is a high priority for the agency, and we are working closely with the community and local, state, and federal partners to provide the public with accurate information."

Union Pacific has held several community meetings and now has signage warning residents about the soil danger on their land.

SEE ALSO: Neighbors in "cancer cluster" upset about new Union Pacific construction

The neighborhood formed a group called IMPACT and have legal counsel. They've also got Medcalf's organization and a number of others fighting for their cause, which they said is Union Pacific coming out and righting their wrongs.

"The community deserves to you know, get to the bottom of the bigger picture of what's going on with their health and their environment," Medcalf explained.

The Houston Health Department has been actively pushing the state for answers and has sent its mobile air quality testing unit to continuously monitor for contaminants.

"The neighborhood is abandoned because people are getting sick and people don't want to live here anymore. They (Union Pacific) needs to come and help clean up what they've destroyed," Osbourne said.

ABC13 reached out to Union Pacific about the birth defects study, but we haven't yet received a statement. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, "The City of Houston will aggressively explore all possible avenues to bring meaningful relief to this suffering community."

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