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EPA vows to clean up northeast Houston neighborhoods plagued by pollution

Residents in Houston's Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens are asking the EPA to speed up the clean-up of a Union Pacific site.

HOUSTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is vowing to step in, if necessary, to speed up clean-up of a former creosote site near homes in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens.

Administrator Michael Regan toured those northeast Houston neighborhoods on Friday during the final leg of his week-long “Journey to Justice” tour, which also included stops in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“The goal is definitely not a photo-op for EPA, but it is an opportunity to elevate environmental justice on the national stage,” Regan told community members during a roundtable Friday morning at Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church.

He later added, “We have not come to this point by chance, and I think it’s important that the EPA acknowledge that for decades there’ve been disproportionately impacted communities.”

Administrator Regan spoke to residents on their front porches, in their front yards, and outside of a local elementary school in the path of the proposed Interstate 45 expansion.

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Residents brought up issues like lead poisoning, concrete batch plants, railroads, the trucking industry, vehicle emissions, and declining home values in their neighborhood.

However, the most-mentioned issue was the cleanup of a Union Pacific site near Sandra Edwards’ Fifth Ward home.

A tar-like wood preservative called creosote was used at the site for decades.

“In summertime, you can sit in this yard and watch the vapors come up,” said Edwards, during a discussion with Administrator Regan in her front yard.

State officials found cancer clusters among people who live or have lived near the site.

“It’s basically the whole street has died,” said Leisa Glenn, during a roundtable at the church.

A spokesperson with Union Pacific emailed this statement to KHOU on Friday afternoon:

“Union Pacific is pleased Administrator Michael S. Regan came to Houston's Fifth Ward to hear directly from the community and we appreciate his interest in the Houston Wood Preserving Works Site, a former railroad tie facility that Union Pacific assumed responsibility for when it acquired Southern Pacific in 1997, 13 years after wood treatment activities had ceased.

Union Pacific is in the process of renewing our permit to continue our ongoing, decades-long cleanup, testing, monitoring and remediation activities at the site.

We have an open, ongoing dialogue with the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the City of Houston and Harris County. Earlier this month, Union Pacific provided the EPA detailed responses to questions about our remediation and cleanup activities, which have been performed at the site under the TCEQ's direction and oversight.”

Administrator Regan promised that as billions of dollars from the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill arrive in cities, the communities that need it most will be first in line.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Administrator Regan. “We just have to get to work.”

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