Houston halts development in Greater Fifth Ward cancer cluster following investigation

A Houston Landing investigation found that development boomed in the Fifth Ward site, despite its designation as a cancer cluster.

By Michael Murney & Elena Bruess, Houston LandingFebruary 6, 2024 9:48 am,

From the Houston Landing:

The city of Houston has paused all residential and commercial development within part of Greater Fifth Ward, where a swath of land was designated by the state as a cancer cluster due to leftover railyard contamination.

The “administrative hold until further notice” impacts 110 residential and commercial parcels located within the area contaminated by the Union Pacific railyard, Houston Public Information Officer Erin Jones said in a statement to the Houston Landing Wednesday afternoon.

“The hold prevents project numbers from being created for any project in this area,” she said, adding that the Houston Permitting Center “is not hosting any meetings related to this administrative hold.”

The halt to construction comes just over a month after a Houston Landing investigation showed that development within the area has continued for years, despite its 2019 state designation as a cancer cluster and ongoing testing by Union Pacific Railroad and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Landing investigation highlighted how disclosure of the site’s cancer cluster status has been left to sellers’ discretion – meaning many homebuyers and renters who moved into or near the contaminated area were unaware of the potentially dangerous conditions. Much of the pollution was caused by creosote, a wood preservative used on railroad ties that poses health risks.

The temporary hold on development applies only within the area covered by the City’s Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation plan. The plan, which the Houston City Council unanimously approved in September, allots $5 million to cover relocation costs for residents living directly above or within two to three blocks of the contaminated site.

“The pause is for the city to individually inspect each permit application from developers,” said Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel. “We want to make sure we have all the information we need before we continue construction.”

Michel added that the city hopes to receive input and collaborate on the area with the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to see if any federal or state resources may be available for the site.

The pause is not an official ‘moratorium’ on development because no formal action has been taken at the state level yet, Michel told the Landing.

Wednesday’s statement from the city said that applicants looking to develop in the area would be informed of the hold on construction when they attempt to apply for permits.

In the Landing’s December investigation, Michel said that state law did not allow the city to add requirements once a permit application has been submitted, adding that the city could pass a permitting moratorium in the future, but anticipated that the state government would strike it down.

“I think the concern is that Houston has attempted to challenge this kind of thing in the past, where we have attempted to impose environmental restrictions, or additional requirements like a moratorium, and the Texas Supreme Court struck it down,” he said.

Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing

Sebastian Wyatt holds his daughter Salem, 1, as they use a walking bridge to pass onto the other side of the railroad tracks as a Union Pacific train is stopped, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Houston.

A history of contamination

For nearly 100 years, workers at the former Southern Pacific Rail Company’s Fifth Ward site used a tarry substance called creosote to coat railroad ties. The coal and wood-derived substance contains multiple known cancer-causing compounds, as does creosote extender, which workers at the site made from cancer-causing chemicals shipped in from other contaminated sites across Houston.

The hazardous pollutants seeped into the soil, creating a plume of contaminated groundwater below the site, where 110 houses now sit.

Though Fifth Ward residents have sounded alarms about unusually high rates of cancer within the area for years, the city has historically taken little action to halt development or alert potential renters and buyers in and around the site.

Between 2018 and 2023, Houston’s permitting department approved 1,501 single-family homes, duplexes and apartment complexes within the cancer cluster’s 77020 and 77026 ZIP code areas.

Leticia Plummer, council member at-large, said she had been concerned about the construction in Fifth Ward since last summer. Residents in the community said it was confusing to both offer relocation assistance, but also see new developments next door.

“I spoke with the mayor at the time (Turner) and the legal department and everyone said it was impossible to stop construction,” Plummer said. “When Whitmire came on board, I got him to read up on the situation and he said he’d do his best to get it done.”

Update, Feb. 2, 1:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that the railyard site was formerly owned by Southern Pacific Rail Company.