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Houston Chronicle

Houston residents pursue wrongful death lawsuit against Union Pacific

Regina Martin-Morgan, 51, has spent the last decade taking care of her family. First, it was her mother: colon cancer diagnosed in 2011. Then, her father: prostate cancer. Her brother: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.


She has been the primary caretaker — driving family members to chemotherapy appointments, making end-of-life arrangements and all the while maintaining the house she grew up in on Russell Street.


“It was just pure hell,” said Martin-Morgan, whose mother and father died of cancer. Her brother’s cancer is in remission. “This was a 10-year window of nothing but pure hell, trying to manage and take care of family members, and still trying to work. It was so hard.”


Martin-Morgan is one of the dozens of Houston residents who have joined a wrongful death lawsuit against Union Pacific Railroad and its environmental consultants. The lawsuit alleges that the companies failed to properly manage a toxic plume of contamination in the residents’ neighborhood.


The suit, filed in state District Court in Harris County in August, alleges that legacy rail yard contamination in Houston’s Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens area caused cancer. An earlier property damages lawsuit was filed against Union Pacific on behalf of residents by the same law firms earlier this year.


The lawsuits come after state health officials last year found higher-than-expected rates of lung and bronchus, esophagus, and larynx cancers in areas surrounding the rail yard, which for decades has been contaminated with creosote, a mix of chemicals used as a wood preservative. Creosote is a probable human carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


The analysis by the Texas Department of State Health Services then was expanded to include a large swath of northeast Houston this year, finding high cancer rates in 12 of 21 census tracts. Cancer cluster analyses identify where higher rates of cancer exist but do not seek to determine potential causes of the higher rates.


The site was contaminated long before Union Pacific acquired it as part of its 1996 takeover of the Southern Pacific railroad. Southern Pacific operated a wood treatment plant at the Englewood Railyard in Fifth Ward until 1985 at 4910 Liberty Road.


The creosote waste was dumped into waste pits and sunk into the ground, forming a plume of contamination deep underground. That plume in recent years moved from under the rail yard and beneath properties in the area, which prompted Union Pacific to notify residents of the pollution beginning in 2014, as required by its state environmental permits.


Union Pacific maintains that the residents are not exposed to creosote and that it has complied with all relevant state environmental standards. Tests of the area by the state’s environmental agency have not identified exposure to residents.


“Union Pacific wholeheartedly sympathizes with residents who are experiencing medical issues,” said Raquel Espinoza, a spokesperson for Union Pacific. “However, the lawsuit itself is baseless and we plan to defend ourselves in court.”


The Gibson Law Firm of Houston and the Voss Law Firm of The Woodlands are handling the wrongful death suit as well the property damage suit from residents in the area affected by the creosote contamination.


In the lawsuits, attorneys for the residents paint a picture of children playing on contaminated ground or near creosote pits, with rainbow sheens forming in ditches and on the ground when it rained. The lawsuits allege that Union Pacific did not properly manage the creosote waste and failed to properly warn residents of the dangers of exposure.


“Union Pacific, for all these years, has been taking a wait and see approach, hoping nobody would figure this out,” said Jason Gibson, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.


Neither Union Pacific’s environmental consulting firms, Golder and Environmental Resources Management, nor the consulting firms’ lawyers responded to requests for comment.


While the cases move through the courts, residents are pushing to get the contamination cleaned up. The city, which has conducted public health surveys in the area, is working to obtain more testing of the contamination in homes near the rail yard.


The Department of State Health Services said in February that it would convene a panel to determine whether an epidemiological study, which would attempt to determine a cause of the high cancer rates in the area, is appropriate.


As for Martin-Morgan, she doesn’t mind the wait, for either the courts or the state’s health agency.


“I don’t care if it takes the next 30 years — I may not even be alive when it is settled,” Martin-Morgan said. But, she added, “We cannot allow companies to decide that they’re going to put their profits over human safety and life.”


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