Houston halts development in Houston’s Fifth Ward cancer cluster 

Contamination stems from creosote use at former Union Pacific railyard

Houston Halts Development in Cancer Cluster Area
Houston Public Information Officer Erin Jones with aerial of Greater Fifth Ward (LinkedIn, Google Maps, Getty)

Development will have to wait in Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward neighborhood as environmental hazards come to light.

The city of Houston has halted all development in an area that’s been contaminated by the Union Pacific railyard and designated as a cancer cluster by the state, Houston Landing reported

The pause affects 110 parcels within the contaminated area and comes after the outlet’s investigation showed ongoing development, despite its cancer cluster designation in 2019, as well as ongoing testing by Union Pacific Railroad and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

Despite worries raised by Fifth Ward residents about high cancer rates and pollution, Houston’s permitting department approved 1,501 single-family homes, duplexes and apartment complexes in the affected area between 2018 and 2023. 

“The hold prevents project numbers from being created for any project in this area,” Houston public information officer Erin Jones told the outlet. 

The construction halt also follows the city’s approval of a $5 million relocation plan for residents living within proximity to the contaminated site.

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The pause allows the city to thoroughly inspect permit applications and gather necessary information before construction resumes, City Attorney Arturo Michel said. The city is looking into financial collaboration with federal and state agencies to address the pollution.

Council Member Leticia Plummer expressed concerns about conflicting actions, as relocation assistance was offered while new developments continued nearby.

“The legal department and everyone said it was impossible to stop construction,” Plummer told the outlet. “When [Houston Mayor John] Whitmire came on board, I got him to read up on the situation, and he said he’d do his best to get it done.”

The contamination stems from nearly 100 years of creosote use at the former railyard, which has seeped into the soil and groundwater, affecting nearby residential areas. Creosote, a coal and wood-derived substance used to coat railroad ties, contains multiple known carcinogens.

—Quinn Donoghue 

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