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Cancer cluster update: Plans to clean up toxic site in Houston where a tar-like material was used for decades

The city’s first cancer cluster was identified in late 2019 with greater-than-expected incidences of adult cancers of the lung, esophagus and throat.

HOUSTON — Texas environmental officials held their first public meeting on plans to clean up a toxic site owned by Union Pacific Railroad.

Creosote, the tar-like material used to preserve wood that was used at the site for decades, is not far from homes in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens.

State officials have identified cancer clusters among the residents who live, or have lived, near the site.

RELATED: 'Move us out or buy us out' | Alarming study finds cancer cluster involving children in Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens

The meeting was virtual but residents chose to come to a community center to participate together rather than listen alone from home.

The proposal from Union Pacific must be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality before work can begin to remediate the site.

Union Pacific wants to install an underground wall that is supposed to contain the creosote beneath the site that is already in the groundwater.

The railroad also wants to install recovery wells off-site which are intended to pump out nearby groundwater that may have been contaminated.

The railroad’s site manager said he doesn't know how much creosote is in the subsurface and said that nobody does.

“It just doesn’t make doggone sense that this is happening all over the county in communities of color,” Sen. Borris Miles said. “It’s not just Houston’s Fifth Ward.”

State health officials found other cancer clusters in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens near the former creosote site.

RELATED: New cancer cluster discovered in Kashmere Gardens, according to state health department report

The study found that children living near the site were diagnosed with leukemia at nearly five times the rate than would be expected. The first cancer cluster was identified in 2019 when residents were diagnosed with lung and throat cancers at higher rates than expected.

The city of Houston opposed Union Pacific’s proposed plan, calling it incomplete and inadequate.

“We deserve to have an opportunity of choice,” Shaun Lee Babineaux said. “We deserve to have a chance to know the truth, no matter hard it ism no matter how ugly it can be.”

Some said airborne vapors and contaminated dust could be responsible for some incidents of cancer. Union Pacific said there is no known pathway for the carcinogens to enter the human body if the creosote is contained.

Public comment on the proposal will continue through Aug. 30, 2021.