About Cancer Clusters and Waste Pits in Harris County, Texas
Were You Harmed by Exposure to Toxic Substances in the Environment?
We don’t normally expect our environment to cause us harm, but if you live near a waste pit in Texas, there is a good chance that you and your family can suffer cancer or other serious illnesses that can have grave consequences and even lead to death. When pollution of the environment results in harm such as a cluster of cancer cases that exceed reasonable expectations, the polluters should be held responsible for stopping the pollution, cleaning up the area, and providing restitution for those injured. Unfortunately, this rarely happens, and too many Texans are injured or die due to poisons from chemicals that are dumped into the environment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) define a cancer cluster as a greater than expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a defined period of time. In our article about cancer clusters and waste pits (“Cancer Clusters and Waste Pits – a Silent Epidemic”), we discussed the troubling situation in the area around San Jacinto River, Texas, where waste from an old paper mill factory was dumped in a 14-acre area, contaminating the soil and water with dioxin, a known and deadly carcinogen.
For over 40 years, this sludge slowly seeped into the environment and communities of eastern Harris County. The residents, many lower-income families of color, had complained for years about an increase in cancer rates – and for years the State agencies conducted meetings and tests and basically did little else to help solve the situation.
Over the last decade, the Texas Department of State Health Services published more than 260 cancer cluster investigations. In all those years, they have never recommended taking the next step of doing an epidemiologic study. These studies hope to determine patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in specified populations in a particular geographic area.
That suddenly changed when on June 19, 2015, the agency published its report, the “Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer – East Harris County, Texas, 1995 – 2012.”
This groundbreaking document cited a number of rare childhood cancers exceeding reasonable expectations, including gliomas (brain stem cancers), childhood lymphoma and melanomas, and cancer of the eyes – retinoblastoma.
Noting that “Observed numbers of several of the 17 cancers analyzed were statistically significantly greater than expected… DSHS will review these results with a group of subject matter experts to assess the feasibility of follow-up epidemiologic study.”
According to the original report:
Childhood cancer cases were significantly higher: brain (2519), leukemia (2323), melanoma (2330), and glioma (2520).
Childhood retinoblastoma cases were also considerably higher than expected.
Cases of cancer to the brain, liver, and cervix among all ages were statistically significantly higher than anticipated in multiple tracts.
Both myeloma and lymphoma cases were notably higher in one census tract while pretty flat in another one. Also, the number of female breast cancer cases was higher in three and statistically significantly lower in eight of the census tracts.
As welcome as this report is, there is also a glaring shortcoming; it is not, according to the document “intended to determine the cause of the observed cancers or identify possible associations with any risk factors.”
Bear in mind that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already designated these waste pits as a “Superfund site” – an extremely polluted area requiring long-term actions for cleaning up hazardous contaminations.
However, any positive action is better than no action at all. At least the residents of this Harris County area will find out more than they know right now – and maybe receive some much-welcomed relief and aid in addressing these frightening cancer incidents.
What is a Superfund Site?
Superfund sites are land or water areas that are so contaminated by toxic chemicals that they require long-term attention. This contamination often occurs in areas where there were oil refineries, agriculture chemical production operations, and other industrial facilities which left chemicals like chromium, arsenic, benzene, and dioxin in the environment.
In response to publicity about toxic waste dumps in the late 1970s, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. Informally called the Superfund law or program, the act allows EPA to clean up contaminated sites. It also forces the parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work. If no viable responsible party is found, the Superfund program gives EPA the funds and authority to clean up contaminated sites.
While the EPA reports more than 40,000 Superfund sites in the U.S., only a fraction are seen as a “priority” because of all that is required to clean them up. In 2019, in Texas, there were 53 priority sites managed by the EPA, with 21 found in Harris County.
When innocent people are harmed and suffer damages from waste contamination in their environment due to negligent behavior from a corporation, they may be entitled to compensation for their losses through a lawsuit.
Lawsuits have already been filed for harm done by waste pits and other environmental hazards. The San Jacinto River waste pit Superfund site is one example.
More than 600 people are part of the ongoing legal dispute in Harris County, originally filed in 2012. The case has grown into one of the largest environmental class action lawsuits in Texas history. Plaintiffs include fishermen and landowners who allege harms from cancer caused by sludge that fouled the San Jacinto River, which was formerly used as a disposal site for waste from paper mills. In 2008, the EPA found the site was contaminated by dioxin, a chemical that has been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, interference with hormone levels, cancer and damage to the immune system.
On August 5, 2021, EPA issued a Unilateral Administrative Order (UAO) for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site to International Paper Company to conduct the cleanup of the southern impoundment. This allows cleanup work to starting at the site while the larger, more complex design work on the northern impoundments is completed and addressed separately. While the community is pressuring for the site to be cleaned quickly, there have been constant delays, and it is estimated that cleanup will take more than seven years.
The Union Pacific Railroad Company creosote contamination lawsuit is another major example.
Thousands of Houston residents are suing Union Pacific Railroad Company for contaminating their properties with highly hazardous creosote wood preservatives. A recent report found that the community is part of a childhood leukemia cancer cluster, with disease rates five times the national average.
Creosote is a is a complex mixture of approximately 150 to 200 chemicals derived from coal, approximately 85% of which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are hazardous environmental pollutants and are well-known carcinogens and mutagens with properties that pose a serious threat to human health. Creosote was used to treat and extend the life of railroad ties at a location in Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward up until 1984. Since then, contamination in the soil sank into the ground and created a contaminated ground water plume that has now moved beneath 110 homes in the area. This has exposed residents in the low-income, predominantly black community, causing illnesses such as leukemia and cancers of the lung and bronchus, esophagus, and larynx.
Ongoing lawsuits include a wrongful death suit naming Union Pacific, alleging that the company consciously released hazardous creosote into the area and then attempted to conceal the danger the contamination posed. In the meantime, the EPA continues to allow use of creosote-treated wood instead of considering less toxic or non-toxic alternatives, such as steel, composites, and fiberglass.
Damages You May Recover in a Lawsuit
If you live in an environmentally damaged zone such as a waste pit or creosote contamination zone and have developed cancer or any other disease, you may have a case for a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. In a successful lawsuit, you may win compensation for both your economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are to reimburse you for monetary expenses, such as:
Cost of medical, hospital, and nursing care resulting from injuries
Loss of wages and earning capacity.
Non-economic damages are compensation for the non-monetary negative effects on your life, such as:
Pain and suffering
Mental and emotional distress caused by the injuries
Loss of consortium and enjoyment of life.
Often toxic environmental poisonings are the result of some person or company’s negligence. In some cases, punitive damages, meant to punish and make an example of a defendant, may be awarded as well.
Lawyers for Victims of Waste Contamination
If you think you or your family may have been exposed to the waste contamination in eastern Harris County, or have already been diagnosed with childhood or adult cancers, it is highly advisable to consult with an environmental injury attorney.
Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law in Houston has been an advocate for Texas residents since 1985, helping them achieve just compensation and justice for their rightful legal claims. Our attorneys can help you hold companies like Union Pacific Railroad accountable for their wrongdoing and fight for maximum financial compensation.
When you contact us, we will listen to you, answer your questions, evaluate whether you have a valid case, explain your legal options, and help you determine the best course of action to take to hold the negligent parties legally responsible for your damages. We will conduct investigations, gather evidence, and hire experts in the field to testify as to the source and extent of your damages and how they negatively impact your life. We will build your case and take it to court if necessary to aggressively fight to get you the compensation you are entitled to.
Getting proper representation can help ensure that those who are at fault are held accountable. There are no fees to you unless and until we win your case, so call Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law today at (713) 973-8888 for your free case evaluation.
Attorney Terry Bryant
Terry Bryant is Board Certified in personal injury trial law, which means his extensive knowledge of the law has been recognized by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, setting him apart from many other injury attorneys. The 22 years he spent as a Municipal Judge, Spring Valley Village, TX also provides him keen insight into the Texas court system. That experience also helps shape his perspective on personal injury cases and how they might resolve. This unique insight benefits his clients. [ Attorney Bio ]
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