Houston residents blame at least 12 cancer deaths on toxic railyard


EPA administrator Michael Regan is promising to take action on a toxic railyard in north Houston that local residents say is driving up cancer rates and killing children.

For years, those living in the city’s Fifth Ward have raised concerns about a former wood treatment facility site owned by Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), where soil and groundwater were contaminated by creosote during historical operations.

State research shows the rate of childhood leukemia is ‘significantly greater’ than the state average near the site, and one local mom said she believes carcinogenic toxins killed her 13-year-old son Corinthian Giles, who died of leukemia this year.

‘He just wanted to make sure that the doctors did everything they could to try to save his life,’ a tearful LaTonya Payne told CBS News. 

‘Until the very last breath, he fought and he fought.’

Payne is among a group of frustrated residents demanding action at the site, and on Friday the issue received the attention of EPA boss Regan, who toured the area as part of his ‘journey for justice’ initiative.

LaTonya Payne told CBS News she believes carcinogenic toxins killed her son

LaTonya Payne told CBS News she believes carcinogenic toxins killed her son

Payne's 13-year-old son Corinthian Giles died of leukemia this year

Payne’s 13-year-old son Corinthian Giles died of leukemia this year

Corinthian Giles, who lived near the rail site, died of leukemia in July at age 13

Corinthian Giles, who lived near the rail site, died of leukemia in July at age 13

‘We have a sense of urgency in cleaning up this mess,’ he told CBS News. ‘I don’t believe we’ve been aggressive enough in terms of state and federal reaction.’

Fifth Ward resident Sandra Edwards said cancer killed at least 12 people on her street – including her dad.

‘We’ve been fighting this threat four, five years and nobody has come over,’ Edwards told CBS. ‘Everybody want to come see what’s going on, but nothing has been done.’

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services found elevated counts of cancers to be associated with chemicals of concern at the UPRR site. 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a June letter to the EPA asked the federal agency to help investigate the health and environmental implications of contamination at the site.

He also asked it to secure ‘meaningful relief’ for residents impacted by the site, including possible relocation.

‘This matter is of upmost importance to the city and deserving of any and all resources that EPA can devote to it,’ Turner said in a letter to Regan. 

 In an October letter, the UPPR responded to the EPA letter, saying it ‘is committed to continuing an open and transparent dialog with affected residents.

Houstonians living in the city's fifth ward have raised concerns about a former wood treatment site where soil and groundwater were contaminated by creosote during historical operations

Houstonians living in the city’s fifth ward have raised concerns about a former wood treatment site where soil and groundwater were contaminated by creosote during historical operations

Residents say they believe that the contamination has spread beyond the immediate region

Residents say they believe that the contamination has spread beyond the immediate region

Michael Regan, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, promised to take action, saying: 'We have a sense of urgency in cleaning up this mess'

Michael Regan, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, promised to take action, saying: ‘We have a sense of urgency in cleaning up this mess’

It said it acquired the former Houston Wood Preserving site in 1997 after operations were discontinued, and added that although it never treated wood there, it conducted ‘the extensive cleanup of the historical impacts.’  

Cleanup has been underway at the site for more than three decades, UPRR added in its letter to the EPA.  

‘To date, test results do not show impacted soil or groundwater exposure to residents,’ it said.

Local residents say they believe the contamination has spread beyond the immediate region. 

Those who lost loved ones to cancer said they’re hopeful Regan can inspire improvements to prevent further tragedies.

‘Everyday it’s hard, honestly,’ Payne said of her lost son. ‘We are all struggling with having to live without him.’ 



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