By Jackie Medcalf, THEA Founder and CEO

Dioxin. 

It’s a terrifying word for those familiar with toxic chemicals. Minute concentrations can cause cancer and the health threat can continue for years and be passed on for generations. So, when the Chronicle reported that the Houston Health Department found dioxin in a soil sample in Kashmere Gardens, I thought of the residents and how they would take the news. For years they have been pushing Union Pacific to clean up the old creosote plant on its property. 

Kashmere Gardens and the Fifth Ward were declared a “cancer cluster” in 2019 because of higher-than-normal rates of birth defects and cancers. For residents, the discovery of dioxin adds one more layer of concern about their own health and the health of their families. Was this the cause of the cancer that took a parent or other relative? Is it safe to raise children there? 

I had those same fears when I discovered that my father’s cancer and my health problems could be related to toxic chemicals in my own neighborhood. That’s what motivated me to start Texas Health and Environment Alliance and to study dioxins and other toxins in this area more than a decade ago. 

The discovery of dioxin was quickly followed by a series of legal filings and negotiations that resulted in a 45-day pause in the state permitting process for Union Pacific’s clean-up plan. That will allow the city, the county, and the local nonprofit Bayou City Initiative to try to negotiate a remedial plan that properly protects public health and the environment. 

This process has been long, drawn-out, and messy leaving people in Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward with too many questions and too few answers. It should be a wake-up call to the city and all of Harris County about the way we handle environmental health in our region. 

Better Information – The city did the right thing by testing the area, but the public still needs to know specifics about the source and concentration of dioxin. Like DNA, dioxins can be fingerprinted at the molecular level and traced to their origin. Did they come from the creosote or some other source?

Trustworthy Information – Why was the city testing the soil in the first place? Because no one else was stepping up to do it. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the cleanup. TCEQ hasn’t required Union Pacific to fully assess hazards from the site or inform the public of risks in their community. In fact, even when the state declared the area to be a “cancer cluster” in 2019, it buried the news on the TCEQ online database where it went unnoticed for five months.  The city stepped in because neighbors had lost trust in Union Pacific, and the state and federal agencies.  

Faster Information –The process is meant to be thorough but too often it just lets industry play a game of cat-and-mouse with regulators. Regulators require testing, but industry often finds ways to choose the areas it tests and bury the results in thousands of pages of reports. The state initiated the cleanup process in 1994. While Texas and the property owner have been talking about testing and planning, the plume of contaminated groundwater from the plant has drifted north of the site under more than 100 homes.  When the Chronicle reported the discovery of dioxin by the city, Union Pacific said it tested for dioxin levels back in 2009 and they were within acceptable limits. This year, the EPA told the railroad those tests were inadequate and may have been based on an inaccurate standard. More than a dozen years had passed since that first test. 

The people in Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward have been the victims of a broken system, but everyone in Houston and Harris County needs to pay attention. Our region grew so large, so fast and with a lack of zoning laws, what were once industrial sites are now subdivisions and homes that share fence lines with businesses that use industrial chemicals. Stick a shovel into the soil in much of the county and you are likely to dig up toxins. People who live near those sites represent all ethnicities and income levels. However, nearly 80 percent are people of color and 42% are low-income residents.

THEA focuses on Superfund sites. We dig through raw data and track endless regulatory processes to keep residents informed and help them to be effective advocates for their own health. When we see the city’s recent discovery of dioxin in one neighborhood, it tells us we need a city- and county-wide strategy. Today it is Kashmere Garden. Tomorrow it could be River Oaks. Residents throughout the county should not endure generations of preventable cancer and birth defects while we wait for industry and the government agencies to slowly walk through a broken environmental protection process.