HOUSTON—Concerned residents of the Chasewood subdivision in southwest Houston told city leaders about what they feel are a high number of cancer cases in their neighborhood, and they expressed concern that the health problems may have something to do with radioactive drinking water the city pumped to their neighborhood for years. At least two members of Houston City Council said they shared residents’ concerns.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the city’s public works director, Daniel Krueger, attempted to calm citizens’ concerns in a neighborhood meeting, which was called after a KHOU investigation revealed the Chasewood neighborhood tested above the federal legal limit for radiation in drinking water in its most recent test in 2009.
The city took the radioactive well offline in November after KHOU began asking questions. Parker and City Council Member Wanda Adams each said they first learned about the problem following KHOU’s recent calls to the mayor’s office. KHOU discovered the Chasewood water well’s problems date back many years. In fact, internal city records obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request reveal the well has tested at or above the federal legal limit for alpha radiation in all three of its last tests, which were performed separately in 2004, 2007 and 2009. Parker stressed that any previous failure to take action by the city took place before she took office.
Some neighborhood residents feel someone should be held accountable for their increased exposures to radiation in drinking water.
"Someone at the public works department knew about it," Chasewood resident Denise Adams said.
"We’re not here to embarrass you we just need some honest, reliable data," another concerned Chasewood citizen told city leaders.
At one point during the meeting, one resident read the results of a community survey which stated 37 cancer cases had been reported in the subdivision. One street, which consists of just 21 homes, reportedly had at least 14 cancer diagnoses.
The mayor and the public works director repeatedly stressed that Houston, as an entire city, has met state and federal drinking water safety standards for radiation in the city’s water. However, those compliance standards are based on an average of all pumps through the city. City leaders acknowledged they did not receive a violation for their entire system, even while some groundwater pumps the city gets drinking water from—like the one in Chasewood—repeatedly have exceeded the federal legal limit for alpha radiation.
City officials told KHOU they have never installed any of the available technologies which can be used to filter out radiation at the purification plant. As a result, the water does not get filtered before it arrives at residents’ taps.
KHOU previously reported that the EPA has said there are no safe amounts of radiation in drinking water. The federal register of the United States recognizes that a single alpha particle, a form of radiation, has the potential to cause a mutation in DNA. Many cities, like Dallas, Fort Worth, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Arlington, San Antonio, Boston and New York, have zero alpha radiation in their water. Houston, which sits atop a number of natural underground deposits of radioactive uranium and radium, still takes about 20 percent of its water out of the ground.
"No one is drinking any water from the Chasewood well now," Mayor Parker reminded the crowd at the meeting.
However, City Council Member C.O. "Brad" Bradford said residents in Chasewood should have been warned years ago, after the city first learned about high alpha radiation readings in the neighborhood.
"What is going to be done to address the harm that has already occurred, of which we’ve heard zero? We’ve heard zero on that part," he said.
Bradford asked the question of the mayor and representatives of the Public Works Department, after they disclosed that radiation had been detected in the Chasewood wells as far back as 1995. Back then, they said, the radiation did not exceed federal legal limits. By 2002, city officials said, the readings had begun to grow higher.
Council Member Adams, who represents the Chasewood area and helped organize the neighborhood meeting along with the mayor, responded to citizens’ concerns about the 37 cancers they counted in their neighborhood.
"Those are not good numbers. But can I stand here as a council member and say the water caused it? Legally, no I can’t," she said. "I’m not gonna put myself at liability for that."
Parker also faced similar questions.
"I can’t tell you it harmed you, I can’t tell you it didn’t harm you," she said.
Council Member Jolanda Jones said the issue strikes close to home for her.
"My aunt lives in Chasewood. This is real important to me," Jones said. "I’m frustrated. You have a street with 21 houses, and 14 incidents of cancer."
Jones does not think shutting the radioactive Chasewood well down today makes up for years of exposure the city put residents through. Jones also criticized city leaders for not having properly notified residents of Chasewood about the radiation dangers. She and others in the audience took note of how the city sent a letter from the mayor and Council Member Adams soon after they shut the radioactive well down, telling residents about how "the well is not being used now, nor does the city expect to need to use it in the future." The letter was hand-delivered to each Chasewood home.
However, some residents expressed concern they had not received similar attempts to notify them of a potential danger in the years that went by while the water well was still on.
KHOU obtained a copy of the letter, which specifically addresses radiation concerns in Chasewood, and discovered in one part it states that, "the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering (PWE) has consistently reported this information to the public in its annual Drinking Water Quality Report, sent to all city water customers once a year."
However, a KHOU examination of those annual reports reveals the city never mentioned Chasewood or any other specific neighborhood as having high readings for alpha radiation. The city did disclose a reading, somewhere in Houston, had peaked above federal legal standards for radiation but made no mention of Chasewood.
When confronted about the lack of previous disclosure during the neighborhood meeting, Mayor Parker told residents, "The answer is you’ve had this information all along but you may not have known what it meant."
She also told them she wouldn’t have been able to personally figure it out from looking at the same reports.
"You’ve got to acknowledge the problem, and I just don’t believe we’ve done that," Council Member Jones said.
Some concerned residents also pressed the mayor to commit to permanently capping off the Chasewood well, which she promised would no longer be used. The well remains uncapped today, and if city leaders now or in future administrations decided they wanted to use the well again, they could do so at the flip of a switch.
Council Member Bradford said he supports new resident calls to cap the well off, and says he can understand their frustration and lack of trust in city officials that is now coming from the part of some citizens in Chasewood, who were not warned about the high radiation readings in their water in previous years.