The drive down Liberty Road, jogging northeast across Houston’s Fifth Ward, is jarring and disquieting. As a collage of mismatched scenery, it stands out, even in a city like Houston that is known for its piecemeal planning. On one side sits a typical Houston residential neighborhood of single-family houses with a handful of churches and commercial venues. Yet, dated “for sale” signs accompany the vacant houses, and though seemingly quiet and peaceful, the disinvestment is evident. On the other side, a fenced-off vacant lot of overgrown vegetation stretches for nearly a half-mile long, with freight trains visible at a distance. It is an uncomfortably long and empty landscape in an urban setting less than four miles from downtown Houston.
The vacant lot, officially known as Houston Wood Preserving Works (HWPW) at 4910 Liberty Road, used to be a creosote treatment facility operated by Southern Pacific Railroad, the predecessor to the present-day Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR). Between 1911–84, railroad ties were treated with wood preservatives containing coal-tar creosote, a known carcinogen, which were used and disposed without proper waste management. Although out of operation for nearly forty years, HWPW site began to appear on the local news headlines in 2019, when a study conducted by Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) revealed a cancer cluster—a “greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time”—associated with the site. A close look at HWPW and its history reveals the layers of systemic injustice that have steadily weakened a community, as well as the inconsistencies and misalignments of physical boundaries when addressing amorphous things that linger, like hazardous chemicals.
HWPW is one of the many industrial sites flanking the Houston Ship Channel that emerged and expanded during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On a map, HWPW is a large triangular parcel measuring approximately thirty-six acres in size, dividing and isolating the surrounding neighborhoods in a similar manner to UPRR’s Englewood Intermodal Yard to the south and the larger Englewood Yard to the northeast. Without the constraints of zoning ordinances, these facilities and their supporting infrastructures were built adjacent to residential neighborhoods—historically Black communities like Fifth Ward—whose growth coincided with that of the industrial sites. In addition to their disruptively large footprints, these facilities’ demand for speed and efficiency spurred the construction of freeways and overpasses centered around I-10 and US59/I-69 from the 1950s, further breaking up the neighborhoods.
Growing side by side, the rail and shipyards, oil refineries, and their associated facilities became a source of livelihood for many living in the surrounding communities. However, they also became a source of health and environmental hazards, emitting harmful chemicals into the air and introducing toxic wastes into the ground. The areas north and south of the Houston Ship Channel are scattered with active and inactive facilities designated as Hazardous Waste Management Facilities by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In the Greater Fifth Ward alone, there are three federal and two state Superfund sites identified to be of “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and safety”. The skewed concentration of the industrial facilities and their hazardous waste in historically Black, low-income neighborhoods reinforces the observation by Dr. Robert Bullard that “Black Houston was unofficially zoned for garbage” for most of the twentieth century.
For decades, neither the disruptive physical presence of these industrial sites nor their amorphous yet toxic waste were sufficiently addressed by state and local governments, let alone by the operating businesses. UPPR’s site is no exception. While residents noted the smell and voiced their health concerns for decades, the contaminants and their toxicity were only made visible when they emerged as disease symptoms in residents’ bodies—but not quite visible enough for the governing entities. Further indexing and quantification of these bodies was necessary for proper attention: in 2019 and 2020, in response to the requests by the community group IMPACT Fifth Ward, the census tracts within a two-mile radius of HWPW were finally investigated as a cancer cluster by DSHS. Of the twenty-one tracts surveyed, twelve had incidence rates that were statistically significantly greater than the state’s incidence rates for particular cancers during the period of 2000–16. The cancers identified include esophagus, lung and bronchus, liver, and larynx cancers, as well as childhood ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia).
Although disputed by Union Pacific, the cancer cluster has been attributed to the long-term exposure to the polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic that have lingered in the HWPW and the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The coal-tar creosote used as wood preservative, as well as the crude oil that used to be stored at present-day Englewood Intermodal Yard, are almost entirely composed of PAHs and categorized as "carcinogenic to humans" by governmental agencies. Coal-tar creosote and crude oil were used, stored, and disposed without proper treatment, harming the workers, contaminating the surrounding soil, and leaching into the groundwater beneath the site over time. Once in the groundwater, the degradation of some of the PAHs produced arsenic, another carcinogenic element.
Even after the facilities ended their operations, chemicals remained in the groundwater for decades, occupying subsurface zones as deep as sixty-five feet underground. Unconstrained by the physical and legal barriers that exist above ground, the chemical plumes spread in all directions, moving with the flows of the groundwater. As shown in the historic map of the site, the areas occupied by creosote and arsenic plumes as of 2020 represent a footprint far greater than that of the processing and waste facilities back when they were in operation. They have spread beyond UPRR’s sites and are now below privately-owned residential properties, continuing their northwesterly migration. While the contaminated groundwater is not a municipal water supply, there are concerns about chemicals resurfacing above ground as vapor or re-entering the ambient air as dust, eventually reaching residents’ bodies. The contaminants have mostly remained underground and unseen since the facility’s closure, but they persist in the people who battle—and have watched others in their community battle—cancer and related health conditions.
EPA’s RCRA program requires UPRR to clean up the hazardous waste generated at the HWPW site and Englewood Intermodal Yard. Despite the chemical migration beyond UPRR’s properties, their monitoring and remediation efforts such as soil removal, concrete-capping of the ground, and installations of extraction wells for years remained within their property lines. It was only in the August 2020 renewal permit for RCRA Remedial Action Plan that UPRR included plans to install extraction wells in the neighborhoods north of the site.
UPRR’s priority seems to be legal compliance instead of the residents’ and environment’s well-being. They explicitly state in their Remediation Action Plan that “it has long been recognized that there are significant challenges in achieving a response objective of groundwater restoration[..., and that] it is unlikely that any of the technologies currently available will be successful.” Their attitude of perceiving the contaminants as a discrete, atemporal issue has enabled them to qualify their responsibilities as “clean-up efforts,” allowing them avoid taking accountability for the damages that have accumulated over time. Moreover, the City of Houston’s announcement to put together a buy-out plan to relocate the affected residents (a move that seems to resolve the problem by moving more vocal residents instead of addressing the problems) indirectly supports UPRR’s refusal to take accountability for the environmental and health damages caused by their hazardous waste.
The railroad company’s focus on legal compliance is also reflected in how the remediation actions implemented to satisfy the RCRA guidelines have introduced a new set of environmental risks to the neighborhood. Capping large areas of the Intermodal Yard with concrete has transformed the area of highest elevation in the neighborhood into an impermeable surface and has increased the risk of flooding in a neighborhood that sits within the (now-obsolete) 500-year floodplain and incurred significant damages during Hurricane Harvey. On top of increased flooding risks, the tar-like contaminants beneath the capped surfaces have been observed to resurface through the concrete and asphalt cracks. Given the evident mobility of the substance in question, they have likely been mixed into runoff and spread to areas beyond the HWPW site.
While it may be difficult to directly link the cancer cluster and health issues with the contaminants that originated from this particular site, the misalignment between UPRR’s legal property lines and the present location of the plumes may offer other ways to hold UPRR to take greater accountability. With the plumes having migrated beyond their property lines, it could be argued that UPRR has encroached upon the neighborhood’s residential properties for years. In addition to cleaning up the contamination, UPRR should compensate the property owners for the plume’s occupation of their properties. In daily interactions, we pay to occupy a space owned by others for a set duration, whether that is for parking, renting an apartment, or sitting at a coffee shop. Leaving unwanted goods on the properties of others is considered littering, and the legal system punishes individuals for trespassing or loitering. Why should chemical plumes be any different?
A more specific comparison of the plume may be its similarity to oil and natural gas. While oil and natural gas are identified as resources, they are similar to the plume in that they are fluid elements that exist beneath the ground. Oil and natural gas companies access the resources under private properties through legal agreements based on the framework of mineral rights. Whether by purchasing or leasing the mineral rights, they compensate landowners for accessing and extracting the minerals from their land. Considering that recovered creosote can be sold for reuse, as it has been done in the American Creosote Works, Inc. Superfund site in Winnifield, Louisiana, since 2014, and that UPRR is extracting the creosote plume, it seems reasonable to hold them accountable through compensating property owners for extracting the plume that has occupied their land, as it is a commodity with value. Compensating for the waste’s occupied duration, rather than a single payment like the City’s buyout offering, empowers the residents to hold onto their homes, relocate to elsewhere if desired, and return one day.
IMPACT Fifth Ward and their allies have been critical of the proposed action plan outlined in the UPPR’s 2020 renewal permit. They continue to vocalize their concerns, holding meetings with field experts and asking both the City of Houston and state entities for more tests and monitoring. They have tirelessly continued to share their stories through the news media. Examples are included at a link at the end of this text.
Efforts led by IMPACT Fifth Ward have resulted most recently in an increased involvement by EPA, including EPA’s direct review and comments on UPRR’s Remedial Action Plan, installations of additional air monitoring system in the neighborhood, and commitment towards developing local strategies for managing the pollutions. While EPA’s involvement offers hope for long-term strategies that can help build neighborhood resilience, it is not clear if UPRR would be held accountable beyond the site remediation as to address the damages incurred, including the cancer cluster.
The history of the HWPW site and its neighboring communities reveal layers of burdens and extractions that sum over decades of exploitation and mistreatment. The physical, emotional, and financial burdens of battling cancer and fighting for justice are some of the challenges faced by the community, including flooding, employment, disinvestment, and accessibility. By understanding the plume as something that neither appeared nor will disappear immediately, greater accountability could be placed on UPRR. Moreover, this would make it possible to explore remediation efforts that imagine the neighborhood’s future far beyond plume extraction. To stay up-to-date on the issue, visit the City of Houston Health Department’s dedicated page.
Additional resources about this effort have been collected here.
Mai Okimoto is Cite's Editorial Assistant and M.Arch '22 candidate at Rice Architecture.
 “Houston Land Use.” City of Houston. June 2021. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://arcg.is/1PLjDb0.
 Golder Associates, Inc. “RCRA Part B Renewal Application Compliance Plan Attachment XI.D; Response Action Plan - Revision No. 5; Union Pacific Railroad; Houston Wood Preserving Works; Houston, Texas; SWR No. 31547 / IHW No. 50343.” Houston Wood Preserving Works. Union Pacific Railroad Company. August 31, 2020. https://cteh.sharefile.com/share/view/s4fbafb082afb4933ada8d131da9978f2. 4832.
 Golder Associates, Inc., “RCRA,” 6.
 Golder Associates, Inc., “RCRA,” 111-115.
 Golder Associates, Inc., “RCRA,” 10.
 Golder Associates, Inc., “RCRA,” 5402-5403.