13 Investigates: City officials trying to sort fact from fiction ahead of cancer cluster vote

Shannon Ryan Image
Wednesday, January 24, 2024
Confusion surrounds new building permits in cancer cluster area
Houston City Council delayed a vote to relocate families living in a cancer cluster and now have two weeks to get their facts straight.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A meeting that Sandra Edwards and her neighbors had always hoped for finally occurred Tuesday morning. But they fear it's about four decades too late.

"What good does it do for me if I'm already contaminated?" she asked.

Edwards has spent most of her life in her Lavender Street home in Houston's Fifth Ward.

"Born and raised," she nodded.

She moved out of the house at the age of 16 and moved back in 2010. Tuesday morning, new At-Large Position 1 Houston City Councilmember Julian Ramirez sat in her living room, asking Edwards and about 10 of her neighbors if they would like to move out of the area.

"He took a lot of notes," she said optimistically.

In the 1980s, a wood treatment facility run by Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific Railroad, stopped operating in Edwards' neighborhood. She started noticing those around her die.

"We're not just talking about the old," Fifth Ward resident Walter Mallet said.

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 there is a cancer cluster in the Fifth Ward neighborhood surrounding the creosote plume. The EPA and Union Pacific are expected to wrap up their joint study on a possible link this spring.

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

"I'm pissed off about this," Mallet said. "This thing has been happening for over four decades. What's the problem? What's the problem? Is it the color of the skin?"

Last fall, the city set aside $5 million to move people out of the neighborhood. In a meeting on Jan. 10, the council considered giving the Houston Land Bank another $2 million to run that program before delaying the vote, admitting they had no real plans in place.

Councilmember Tarsha Jackson, who represents the district, told her colleagues on the council, "We are building (the plane) as we fly."

ABC13 asked Ramirez on behalf of the residents if there was now a plan.

"Is there a plan? You know. That's a good question." he replied. "I see the outline of a plan, I don't see a whole lot of detail, and so I'm going to be looking for more information." He added, "We should have questions answered before we spend $2 million to administer a $5 million program, and it may turn into more than a $5 million program because the mayor alluded to the fact that there might be additional funding needed."

Under the current "outline of a plan," renters living in the neighborhood would receive $10,000 to relocate. They would be given the first $5,000 after providing proof of a new lease and the second half after their first utility bill.

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

ABC13 pointed out new rental units that accept month-to-month payments in the neighborhood to Ramirez and asked, "Could they, in theory, just move new people in each month, and each person who moves in each month would qualify for that $10,000 if they provided evidence of their new lease and then their first utility bill? What stops that from just being a sort of revolving door?"

Ramirez replied, "It is private property, and so the owners have property rights, and so unless and until something is done to change that, they are still within their rights to continue leasing the property."

Despite the millions set aside to move people out of the neighborhood, the city is still granting permits to developers creating rentals. In that same Jan. 10 meeting, City Attorney Arturo Michel told his colleagues and the public there was no development in the area, despite ABC13 contacting his office about development that fall, reporting on the development, and uncovering permits that had been issued in the area as late as December.

City staff are now aware of the development. Michel told ABC13 the following day, Jan. 11, that permitting in the neighborhood had been paused on Jan. 10. ABC13 found that permitting was not paused. Instead, developers are subject to an administrative period, meaning it will take longer for their permits to be granted.

"Let's be clear: I'm new to the situation, just having taken office about three weeks ago. Clearly, unfortunately, at City Hall, sometimes the left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing," Ramirez said.

Trying to parse out fact from fiction, Ramirez told ABC13 he met with Edwards and her neighbors in an attempt to chart the best path forward for them.

However, Edwards told ABC13 she believes her path ends in her Fifth Ward home.

"It's already done. It's already done. So just like they did with all the new houses, drag my yard, bring me some dirt in, put me a new house up, let me sit down and be comfortable and be quiet," she said.

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