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In Houston, Neighborhoods With High Cancer Rates Say Rail Yard’s Cleanup Plans Fall Short

A woman stands in front of a car with her son, his arm draped on her shoulder.
Laura Isensee
LaTonya Payne and Corinthian Giles have both battled forms of cancer.

This story originally appeared on Texas Standard.

Environmental racism is the focus of this season of the NPR podcast "Living Downstream." A new episode of that podcast focuses on Houston's Fifth Ward and the story of 13-year-old Corinthian "Mister" Giles and his mom LaTonya Payne are.

Giles has battled childhood leukemia and Payne was diagnosed with breast cancer. Those are some of the same illnesses common among their neighbors.

ProducerLaura Isensee says one study of the area found children are five times more likely to contract childhood leukemia than the average.

"We also know that adults in Houston's Fifth Ward and also Kashmere Gardens, they also face increased cancer risk, specifically larynx cancer, esophagus, lung cancer, those types of cancers," Isensee told Texas Standard. "And we know this from an analysis that was done in the last couple of years by the state health department that looked at cancer rates from 2000 to 2006."

Isensee says residents have long suspected pollution at an old rail yard nearby is to blame.

"I think the pieces for residents really started to come together in 2014 when Union Pacific, which owns the rail yard, revealed that there was contaminated groundwater that had moved from the site underneath homes," Isensee said.

But there has not been an official study that has linked either the contaminated groundwater or a chemical mixture called creosote to the cancer cluster.

"And that's really what the railroad company, Union Pacific, is saying, that there hasn't been any confirmed direct exposure from this contamination to residents," Isensee said.

Union Pacific is currently presenting a plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to try to remediate the hazard. But many neighbors have not been satisfied.

"People are looking for not just a cleanup of the chemicals, but a way to make their community whole again," Isensee said.

And, she says, those she's heard from say that's what they want over any offers to relocate.

"A lot of people that I talked to, they cannot afford to move even if they wanted to," Isensee said. "They live on fixed incomes. They can't afford rent in other neighborhoods or fear that they'll be discriminated against when they're looking for housing. But also, I mean, this is a community and families have lived here for generations. And you can't replicate those kinds of roots, those kinds of community bonds, when you pick up and leave and go someplace new."

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
Texas Standard