Union Pacific's Soil Sampling in Houston’s Fifth Ward: A Critical Examination

Union Pacific, in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the City of Houston, and Harris County, has embarked on a comprehensive soil sampling initiative in Houston’s Fifth Ward. While this extensive testing aims to demonstrate Union Pacific's commitment to community health and environmental responsibility, a critical review raises questions about the true impact and transparency of these efforts.

Scope of Soil Sampling: A Necessary Measure or Too Little, Too Late?

Following an initial round of vapor testing, this soil sampling seeks to identify contaminants such as dioxins, furans, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) at the former Houston Wood Preserving Works (HWPW) site and its surrounding neighborhood. While identifying soil contamination is crucial, one must question the timeliness and comprehensiveness of these measures, given the longstanding concerns of Fifth Ward residents about environmental hazards.

Methodology and Oversight: Genuine Transparency or Procedural Formality?

Under the supervision of the EPA, crews will collect soil samples using hand augers, shovels, and spoons from depths up to 12 inches below ground. Sampling will occur at the HWPW site and across five designated zones, including residential properties, schools, parks, and recreation centers. While this method appears thorough, the effectiveness of using hand tools for deep contamination and the selection process for sampling locations warrant scrutiny. Is this approach truly sufficient to address the community's long-term exposure to contaminants?

Timeline and Collaborative Effort: A Coordinated Approach or Just for Show?

Control sampling began in February 2024, with neighborhood soil sampling and on-site investigations starting in May and continuing through late summer or early fall. A second round of vapor testing is planned for the summer to evaluate the impact of heat on vapor migration. Despite these efforts, community trust hinges on transparent communication and demonstrable outcomes, not just procedural compliance. Residents have long demanded more immediate and impactful actions.

Community Engagement: True Commitment or Public Relations?

Toni Harrison, spokesperson and community liaison for Union Pacific, emphasized the company’s commitment to transparency and community engagement throughout the testing process. "The safety and well-being of Fifth Ward residents are of utmost importance to Union Pacific," said Harrison. However, skepticism remains about whether these statements translate into meaningful actions. Are residents being kept fully informed and involved, or is this just a public relations exercise?

Casey Luckett Snyder, EPA Superfund Project Manager, highlighted the concerns raised by various stakeholders: “We have heard from elected officials. We have heard from public health agencies, from numerous folks that there are concerns about exposure to contaminants in this neighborhood and these communities, and what those contaminants can mean for public health.” She also underscored the scale of the effort: “This, I’ll be honest with you, is going to be a massive endeavor,” said Snyder. “It is going to be a really big investigation.”

Ongoing Environmental Initiatives: Proactive Efforts or Reactive Measures?

This soil testing initiative builds on Union Pacific's collaboration with regulatory agencies and local stakeholders. The company’s approach includes groundwater monitoring, vapor intrusion testing, and ongoing containment and remediation efforts. Yet, questions persist about whether these measures are proactive or merely reactive responses to community pressure and regulatory scrutiny.

For more information about the HWPW site and Union Pacific's environmental initiatives, please visit houstonwoodpreservingworks.com.

Fifth Ward – Soil Sample Spokespersons:

  • Casey Luckett Snyder, EPA Superfund Project Manager: Oversees the cleanup of contaminated sites listed on the National Priorities List (NPL), coordinating with federal, state, and local agencies, as well as with communities and stakeholders, to manage the assessment, remediation, and monitoring of hazardous waste sites.
  • Kevin Petervuers, Senior Manager of Environmental Remediation for Union Pacific Railroad: Manages the identification, investigation, and remediation of environmental contamination related to Union Pacific’s operations, ensuring compliance with environmental laws and regulations, and working with regulatory agencies and communities to address environmental concerns.

About Union Pacific

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) is dedicated to delivering goods families and businesses use every day with safe, reliable, and efficient service. Operating in 23 western states, the company connects its customers and communities to the global economy. Trains are the most environmentally responsible way to move freight, helping Union Pacific protect future generations. More information about Union Pacific is available at www.up.com.