GALVESTON – State and federal regulators say they aren’t likely to investigate the Port of Galveston’s baffling discovery of a buried railroad tank car filled with thousands of gallons of liquid, including a deteriorated form of the banned pesticide DDT.
Also, state regulators say they won’t encourage port officials to go digging for other chemical-filled railcars. Such a move could cause more harm than good, they said.
Holding anyone accountable for burying the railcar, which is not registered as an underground storage tank, is unlikely also, officials say. Some port officials say the car likely was buried more than 50 years ago.
One toxicology expert said he found the governmental inaction surprising.
“I would think state regulators certainly would be interested in getting more information and determining whether a regulatory response was needed,” said Jonathan Ward, director of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s division of environmental toxicology.
Crews unearthed the railcar, which is about 40 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, about a month ago when they were removing track to install a storm drain for a parking lot just west of Cruise Terminal No. 2, north of Harborside Drive near Pier 27.
The discovery became public last week during a regular monthly meeting of the Wharves Board of Trustees, the port’s governing board.
Port officials say they don’t know the concentrations of pesticides or the exact amount of liquid in the railcar, which has a capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 gallons. The car is full of liquid, some of which may be rainwater, they said.
An initial analysis by the port’s environmental consulting firm detected DDE, a breakdown product of DDT. The federal government banned DDT in the 1970s. It was blamed for devastating wildlife, particularly birds, and probably causes cancer in humans.
Tests also detected the pesticide Endosulfan, a neurotoxin. Ingestion of even small amounts of Endosulfan has been linked to seizures and death, Ward said.
After learning of the port’s discovery, Ward notified Ronnie Schultz, director of environmental health programs for the Galveston County Health District. Schultz was out of the office and could not be reached for comment Monday.
Environmental regulators say port officials have done nothing wrong by not reporting the find.
Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say they typically only intervene in such cases when a “reportable quantity” of hazardous material is released into the environment.
The trouble is, most laws regulating hazardous materials relate to immediate and obvious chemical spills or air emissions. Port officials still are determining whether anything from the railcar has leeched into soil or harbor waters.
The port and environmental consultant ENSR Corp. are responsible for determining whether the chemicals have been released into the air, water or soil and whether there’s a threat to human health or the environment, said Dave Barry, an EPA spokesman.
Whether the port is required to call the state depends on the amount of chemicals released into the environment, Barry said.
“We would be involved only if local or state officials called us,” Barry said.
Barry on Monday did not immediately know what constitutes a reportable quantity of DDE, which the federal agency lists as a pollutant because of its persistence in the environment and toxicity to humans.