‘A Lifetime of Damage’ on a Creosote Plume in Houston’s Fifth Ward

By Xander Peters

This story originally appeared in Scalawag Magazine, and was produced and co-published in collaboration with Environmental Health News.

There’s a certain smell that reminds Dianna Cormier-Jackson of her childhood on Leila Street in Houston’s Fifth Ward. When she was young in the early 1960s, she recalls the air there feeling “heavy,” as if it was thick with oil and gasoline. Some days, the heavy smell would be so strong that her parents would make her and her siblings stay in the house. But on school days, they marched out into the rank air.

Today, Cormier-Jackson can’t catch a whiff of the smell without thinking of her brother Ronald Joseph, who used to walk her home from nearby Dogan Elementary. He would have preferred his sister not tag along after school. Her legs were shorter than his, her steps smaller, and with each of her brother’s bounds over the top of the rain puddles, her feet would drop into them with a splash. She remembers looking down at her shoes, stuck in puddles glistening with oil sheens—the holographic blues, purples, and yellows, smeared into the water like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Once they made it home, Cormier-Jackson would cry to their mother about how her brother made her mess up her shoes and socks. Her mother would scrub and scrub, but the yellow tint never would wash out.

The smell of that yellow tint, they’d later learn, came from a concoction of chemicals seeping out of a nearby Englewood Rail Yard on Liberty Road, which bounds the Fifth Ward’s eastern end near Cormier-Jackson’s current home, which is right across the street from where she grew up.

Just as the chemicals’ smell wouldn’t wash out of their clothes, neither have their long lasting effects on the community.

In the 1970s, Cormier-Jackson’s mother was diagnosed with sarcoma. The cancer was attacking her liver, lungs, and kidneys. Her mother’s illness was among the reasons Cormier-Jackson stuck close to home once she was old enough to move out, choosing to remain as a caregiver. At her mother’s appointments, she remembers the doctor asking, “Was there possible exposure?” They were unsure. Her mother had never been one to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol. The doctor blamed asbestos. In 1979, Cormier-Jackson’s mother died from complications of cancer.

In the decades to come, Cormier-Jackson buried several more loved ones. Next was her brother Alton Cormier, who worked at the rail yard. He also died from complications of cancer. Then her ex-husband. Her brother-in-law. Neighbor after neighbor. If not for a car accident that took her father’s life, Cormier-Jackson believes there’s a possibility he would have gone the way of cancer, too—during his autopsy, medical officials found a cyst on his lung.

“Surely had [my brother] known, he wouldn’t have allowed me to step into the water,” Cormier-Jackson, now 66, said of what they’d learn of the oily puddles.

One of the primary chemicals residents of the Fifth were exposed to was creosote, recognizable as the oily, highly flammable substance used to coat telephone poles today. It is also a “probable human carcinogen,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Low-level, long-term exposure has been linked to certain types of cancer, as well as chronic health conditions involving stomach pains, liver problems, and burning of the mouth and throat.

For decades, creosote and other chemicals were used as a coating to preserve wooden railroad ties at the nearby rail yard, which was once the largest in the Southern U.S.

An abandoned house on Lavender Street, under which an underground plume filled with creosote and other potentially harmful chemicals has slowly polluted Houston’s Fifth Ward in recent decades. (Xander Peters)

“There’s several issues involved in a wood treatment plant,” said Dr. James Dahlgren, a medical toxicology expert who has studied the impacts of similar contamination sites on communities since the 1970s. “When the company was operating, they probably were giving off chemical fumes in the air, and the people living in the neighborhood would, of course, have been breathing the volatile chemicals.”

In 2019, an investigation by the Texas Department of State Health confirmed a cancer cluster in the less than five-square-mile area that encompasses Houston’s Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods. Defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a cancer cluster is a “greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.” Two years into state health researchers’ investigation, in January 2021, the state health department reported a second cancer cluster—this time of childhood lymphoblastic leukemia, with rates five times higher than the national average. Those findings haven’t changed anything for Cormier-Jackson and her neighbors who still live alongside the contamination sites.

That hasn’t stopped them from seeking accountability, which means real action from Union Pacific, the company that owns the Englewood Yard today and the party residents claim is responsible for the pollution. Community organizers want the creosote gone, residents relocated, and the medical bills they say they’ve acquired as a result of the creosote exposure paid off.

To date, Union Pacific has refused responsibility for any contamination or possible related illness. Instead, in June, the company offered a plan to contain future spread that residents—and the city of Houston—are rejecting.

Throughout their fight, courts have said that the burden of proof rests on the community. Community members argue that their cancers and other ailments are the proof. And like the stains on Cormier-Jackson’s socks as a child, their communal pain is a stain on the city.

Restitution, residents say, is the only answer to their decades long plea for help.

“It’s a lifetime of damage,” Cormier-Jackson said.

For decades, silently, the chemicals spread

The rail yard, which first ran in 1895 but hasn’t been operational since 1984, was previously owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, until the Union Pacific company bought them out in 1996, inheriting the land.

That land contained an open pit, which has been there longer than most residents have lived nearby.

By most definitions, the pit was just a big hole. It lacked a protective lining to contain pollution sources, as would be mandated today. Like any hole, if you pour water into it, the water seeps its way down. Back then, it was standard practice to pour the tar-like creosote and other chemical waste into the pit after they built up from use. As the chemicals were gradually poured into the hole month after month, year after year, the heavier materials crept further down until they hit a less permeable surface, or a harder dirt layer.

Then, the chemicals began the slow process of spreading outward until arriving underneath folks’ homes, some 110 of which have been determined to sit atop this underground plume.

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