Hundreds pursue lawsuit against Union Pacific over rail yard contamination, cancer cluster in Houston

Photo of Erin Douglas

Hundreds of residents are now plaintiffs in a mass case against Union Pacific alleging damages caused by legacy rail yard contamination in a north Houston neighborhood where higher rates of cancer were identified, said two local law firms.

The Gibson Law Firm, of Houston, and the Voss Law Firm, of The Woodlands, are representing about 500 residents as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed to Harris County District Court in February against Union Pacific and its environmental consultants. The lawsuit was initially filed with 91 plaintiffs.

Union Pacific, which owns the Englewood Rail Yard in Northeast Houston, is responsible for managing and monitoring an underground plume of contamination, a result of treating rail yard ties with the wood preservative creosote, a probable cancer-causing substance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The substance was used for several decades before Union Pacific took over the site from Southern Pacific. In recent years, the plume of toxic chemicals, which has contaminated groundwater, moved beneath over 100 properties in the Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward neighborhoods.

A “stop Pollution” sign at a town hall on creosote contamination in the Fifth Ward hosted by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee at Wheatley High School, in Houston, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

In August, the Texas Department of State Health Services identified a cancer cluster, or higher-than-expected rates of cancer, in the area immediately surrounding the rail yard. The finding prompted more calls by local officials for testing and further investigation.

Union Pacific, which is being represented by Baker Wotring, a Houston commercial litigation and environmental law firm, responded to the first lawsuit at the end of February, denying each allegation. The defense argues that Union Pacific has complied with all state and federal government instructions regarding management of the contaminated site. The answer also asserts that any damages suffered by the residents were due “wholly, or at least in part, to the fault or negligence of the plaintiffs and third parties.”

Baker Wotring referred a request for comment to Union Pacific. In a a statement, a Union Pacific spokesperson, Raquel Espinoza, said, “While Union Pacific sympathizes with residents who are dealing with medical issues, we believe the lawsuit itself is baseless and plan to defend ourselves in court. We will not discuss individual court filings with the press.”


The lawsuit alleges that Union Pacific knowingly contaminated residential neighborhoods for decades, and that exposure to the toxic chemicals used at the Englewood Rail Yard resulted in injuries in the form of cancer, death and property damage.

The suit also alleges that Union Pacific and its consultants, Environmental Resources Management Southwest Inc. and Pastor Behling & Wheler LLC, misrepresented the extent of the threat posed by the contamination at the site to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and to the public.

More than 100 residents gathered at the Fifth Ward Community Service Center last Friday to learn more about the mass case, which seeks damages for each individual resident or property owner; the attorneys also attended the most recent meeting of IMPACT, the community group organized to pressure Union Pacific to clean up the contamination.

At least one other complaint has also been filed against Union Pacific alleging damages from the legacy contamination; the case was filed by Houston firm Stephens Reed & Armstrong on behalf of 13 plaintiffs at the end of February. Union Pacific has not yet responded.

Not all the residents organizing to clean up the legacy contamination are sold on the lawsuits. Some said they’re weighing whether they feel the contingency fee is fair (residents don’t pay for any legal fees, but Voss Law Firm will get 40 percent of any damages recovered — about average for cases like this). Many, though, are glad for the chance to join a case.

Alberta Johnson, 57, a who grew up near the rail yard on Noble Street, said she has asthma and her sister died of cancer at an early age, in her late 30s. Johnson said she wanted to join the lawsuit because she thinks Union Pacific needs to be forced to do what’s right.

“We need to get some help for people,” Johnson said, “So people won’t get sick. They need to do the right thing.”

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