By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Many African Americans know quite a bit about cancer; but they learned their lesson the hard way.
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends, look closely at the Black woman who stands over her grandfather’s tombstone in Shell County, Ga. The cemetery is located in a town near Georgia’s Vogtle Power Plant, on the Savannah River. It is the area’s third most polluted river. The headstone honors her grandfather, Julius Howard Sr.,(1879-1943). He was about 40 when he purchased 600 or so nearby acres in 1919 to pass down to his descendants. But his family is increasingly dying from cancer.
“We noticed that lots of folks started coming down with cancer,” said Annie Laura Howard Stephens, the Black woman who stands over her grandfather’s tombstone in a March 6, 2018 edition of Scalawag Magazine.
“My daddy, mama, sister, two brothers died of cancer, and another living brother now has cancer,” she said. “My aunt, a cousin, and other folks down on the river died of cancer.”
Her family is just beginning to talk openly about cancer, a disease that is expected to afflict about 224,080 African Americans nationwide this year and kill about 74,000, according to the American Cancer Society. Blacks have the highest death and shortest survival rates for all types of cancer. About 1 in 3 Black men and women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 5 Black men and 1 in 6 Black women will die from the disease.
While the Howard family suspects their cancer diagnoses can be traced to the nearby Vogtle Power Plant that for decades buried radioactive waste in cardboard boxes and shallow trenches, they can’t prove radioactive waste leaked into surface water and into the soil. But they often see fish with sores. No one eats the fish.
But, more hard-won lessons surface 14 hours away in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
Dianna Cormier-Jackson said she has buried her mothers and scores of relatives in recent years. Asked why, she paused and said one minute, she and her kid brother were running and laughing through rain puddles that would glow bright yellow on Leila Street. The next minute, many of their relatives were dying from cancer. She suspects the disease is caused by a nearby wood treatment plant that manufactured telephone poles and coated them with creosote.
She remembers looking down and seeing her shoes polished over with oil sheens that came from a concoction of chemicals seeping from the nearby Englewood Rail Yard on Liberty Road. Her mother tried but she could not wipe the yellow glow from her daughter’s shoes. The glow came from the chemicals in the nearby rail yard. The factory is still located near her current home, which is close to her childhood home.
A clear paper trail is beginning to explain why more funeral hearses are driving through Houston’s Fifth Ward with an increasing number of now-deceased cancer patients.
For example, a November 2019 document from the Houston Health Department showed a Texas Department of Health and Human Services analysis found elevated counts of cancers known to be associated with the kinds of chemicals of concern found at the Union Pacific’s Englewood Rail site.
About three months later, in February 2020, dozens of residents protested outside of Union Pacific’s Englewood Rail yard in North Houston, according to The Houston Chronicle. Protestors aimed to “press the railroad company to clean up legacy contamination in a neighborhood where state health officials have identified higher-than-expected rates of cancer.”
The growing paper trail includes a March 14, 2022 letter that the EPA sent to the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) Co., owner of Houston Wood Preserving Works (HWPW) located at 4910 Liberty Road, Houston.
“This letter is regarding the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) permit renewal and major amendment of the Hazardous Waste Permit/Compliance Plan No. 50343 for Union Pacific Railroad. . .This permit renewal will authorize the continued post-closure care and cleanup at the UPRR facility, specifically the addition of a Response Action Plan to develop cleanup options for soil and groundwater contamination.”
The paper trail also includes a Sept. 23, 2022 entry from The Houston Health Department. It released an environmental surface soil sampling conducted on July 11, 2022, in various properties located in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods near the Union Pacific Railroad site. “Dioxins were found in all of the soil samples taken around the community as part of this sampling event. Dioxin is a highly toxic compound and is associated with liver cancer among other severe health risks,” the report noted on the agency’s website.
This means the ongoing paper trail is finally explaining an age-old mystery in Houston’s Fifth Ward. In other words, Dianna Cormier-Jackson’s and her kid brother’s shoes glistened and glowed bright yellow after a rain shower because they were looking at a chemical called creosote. It is an oily, highly flammable substance used to coat telephone poles. It is also a “probable human carcinogen,” according to the CDC.
The paper trail shows Cormier-Jackson’s mother died from complications of cancer in 1979. Her mother was diagnosed with sarcoma in the 1970s. The cancer was attacking her liver, lungs, and kidneys. Her mother had never been one to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol. The doctor blamed asbestos.
Soon, Cormier-Jackson buried her brother Alton Cormier, who worked at the rail yard. He also died from complications of cancer. Then her ex-husband. Her brother-in-law. Neighbor after neighbor. If not for a car accident that took her father’s life, Cormier-Jackson believes there’s a possibility he would have gone the way of cancer, too—during his autopsy, medical officials found a cyst on his lung.