EPA watchdog looks into Alberton spill 

Revisiting Alberton

More than four years after the April 1996 derailment of a Montana Rail Link train spilled 133 tons of mixed chemicals near Alberton, victims of that accident are hoping that this weekend’s public hearing will finally shine a light on many of their unanswered questions.

The hearing, requested by Sen. Max Baucus, will be administered by Robert Martin, national ombudsman for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The ombudsman is an independent governmental post created by Congress to serve as an internal watchdog and go-between for citizens who have problems dealing with EPA on Superfund or other hazardous materials incidents.

Although the ombudsman has no subpoena powers and does not issue legal rulings per se, his investigations and recommendations carry considerable influence and authority, says Ken Rumelt of the national ombudsman’s office in Washington, D.C. According to Rumelt, of the hundreds of Superfund and toxic accidents EPA handles, the national ombudsman investigates less than two dozen cases each year. At least 80 percent of his recommendations are eventually followed by the agency, and some have led to the impanelment of grand juries and criminal charges.

“This is the culmination of about four and a half years of trying to get attention paid to what really happened,” says Hope Sieck of the Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health (ACCEH), a citizens’ advocacy group created after the accident. “It’ll be breaking through the fog and haze that surrounds these questions.”

In the last four years, victims of the spill say they’ve been frustrated in their efforts to get a full account of exactly what happened, who knew what when, and what chemicals they were exposed to. Although the accident has been widely characterized as a “chlorine spill,” many victims say they suffer from problems that may be the result of other chemicals that spilled or formed after the accident.

The timing of this hearing is fortuitous, following a number of recent legal setbacks for victims. In a lawsuit brought by 80 victims, District Court Judge Ed McClean last week dismissed some expert testimony presented on behalf of the plaintiffs and granted Burlington-Northern Railway its motion for summary judgment on the negligence and punitive portions of the suit, says victims’ attorney Ted Lyon. Those rulings have been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

“I hope that we get as many of the facts on the record as possible,” says Lucinda Hodges of ACCEH about the ombudsman’s hearing. “If every citizen who comes gets to say their piece, it’ll bring closure on a lot of levels for the people who are still having problems.”

The hearing will be held Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Boone and Crockett Club in Missoula.

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