On the Right Track 

Alberton victims finally get their say. But who will heed their message?

They came this weekend bearing heart-wrenching stories, nearly a hundred people whose lives were suddenly and irrevocably altered in the early morning hours of April 11, 1996 when a Montana Rail Link train derailed near Alberton, spilling close to 133 tons of mixed chemicals. That accident created a toxic plume that forced the evacuation of about 1,200 people for three weeks, sending more than 300 people to local hospitals and taking the life of a homeless man. To date, many of these victims have never returned to their homes or businesses or been adequately compensated for their losses.

Four and a half years later, victims of the worst mixed chemical spill from a train in American history finally had their day in the sun and a chance to enter their stories into the public record. They posed many tough questions that remain unanswered and demanded attention be paid to the myriad health effects that they say have never been fully explained or addressed.

For 10 grueling hours they brought forth medical records, news articles, videotapes, and photographs of defoliated trees and chemically injured animals. Some displayed large plastic bags and tackle boxes full of the prescription drugs they now rely on to survive. Mothers spoke of previously healthy children who can no longer play sports and whose medical bills total in the tens of thousands of dollars. Others asked why schools and playgrounds were never remediated, what became of the toxic soil hauled through Missoula, and why residents weren’t put through the same rigorous decontamination measures as rescuers. Grown men who recounted their experiences were reduced to tears and could not continue with their testimony.

Their hopes are pinned on Robert Martin, national ombudsman for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who was asked to hold these hearings by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The ombudsman’s position was created in 1984 to serve as an internal watchdog for citizens who believe that EPA is not addressing their concerns about Superfund sites and hazardous materials accidents.

Although the ombudsman has no subpoena power and issues no legally binding rulings, his findings carry considerable influence, with at least 80 percent of his recommendations eventually resulting in action by EPA. Other cases he has investigated have resulted in the impanelment of grand juries and criminal indictments.

The list of those invited to testify who could not—or chose not—to attend is indicative of the long, uphill battle for legitimacy that many Alberton victims have waged—not an uncommon experience, experts say, among poor, rural victims of toxic accidents whose long-term health problems are frequently minimized or ignored. Among the day’s no-shows were representatives from the Federal Railway Administration, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Missoula City-County Health Department and Olympus Technical, Inc., a consulting firm that performed environmental testing following the derailment. Representatives from EPA’s Region 8 headquarters in Denver were also scheduled to appear but were grounded due to bad weather.

Montana Rail Link (MRL) also stayed away, opting to send only its attorney, Randy Cox. In his Nov. 8 letter to the EPA, Cox challenged the legitimacy of the entire proceeding, complaining about the short notice given them, questioning the motives of the ombudsman himself and calling the investigation “nothing more than a meaningless exercise.”

“MRL does not recognize the ombudsman’s authority or right to conduct a hearing regarding the Alberton derailment, post-derailment cleanup operations, or claims of residual contamination in the Alberton area,” wrote Cox. “We view the Ombudsman’s hearing as a litigation tactic by people with a financial stake in continuing to ignore existing data and recycle questions that have already been raised and answered in the course of the technical response to the incident.”

Martin quickly dismissed MRL’s challenges, saying that similar challenges have been raised in other cases he’s investigated across the country. In every instance, Martin asserted, his legal authority to conduct investigations has been upheld.

“I have full confidence that this case will go forward as well and I will do my job and I will do it thoroughly,” said Martin. “This is an open process. There are no closed doors.”

Despite meager attendance by government and industry representatives, the testimony by victims and medical experts raised some compelling and very troubling questions. Roger Chalmers, a victim displaced from his home for nearly 25 months, questioned discrepancies he found between the shipping papers provided by MRL and the train’s bills of lading given to emergency responders. According to Chalmers, some train cars initially listed as non-hazardous were listed elsewhere as hazardous, while other shipping documents were incomplete or missing. Chalmers said that although he repeatedly brought these inconsistencies to the attention of county, state and federal officials, his concerns were all but ignored.

Chalmers also asked what happened to the train cars that were carrying food products bound for Rwanda as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Feed the World” program. Chalmers referred to a report that claims some of that spilled food, which was exposed to chemical contaminants, was later made into chicken feed and sold to commercial farms in Washington.

“That food was poisoned,” said Chalmers. “I’m really curious about the cars that did not [spill]. Where did they go? Did they go to Rwanda and kill people?”

Chalmers later testified about a videotape that he said confirms claims made by other Alberton residents, who say they saw three MRL train cars dismantled and buried near the derailment site, including one that was carrying hazardous materials without a bill of lading.

“It’s my assumption and my opinion that these cars were buried, and they have buried stories with them,” said Chalmers.

Other testimony addressed the presence of a mysterious “white dust” similar to volcanic ash, which some rescuers and victims say they found on their clothing, vehicles and in their homes after the accident. University of Montana chemistry professor Garon Smith, who was asked by the Missoula Health Department in 1996 to investigate the pesticide-like odor many residents were reporting, testified that the white dust was never gathered and thus never tested or identified. Smith said that he’d suggested that the derailment site and some tankers also be tested for dioxins, which are highly toxic cancer-causing agents that persist in the environment. Those tests, which are too complex to be conducted in his Missoula laboratory, were never performed. He had also recommended in 1996 that soil at the accident site be covered with plastic tarps to prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil and contaminating the groundwater or the Clark Fork River. To his knowledge, that precaution was either done partially or not at all.

The only witnesses to offer first-hand testimony of how the “hot zone” was managed was Frenchtown Fire Chief Scott Waldron, who served as incident commander on the spill. Waldron testified that despite allegations made by some victims, at no time were EPA representatives kept away from the accident site, nor was information withheld from the public. Some victims allege that EPA was either deliberately kept off the accident site or neglected to show up until three or four days later.

Curiously, EPA Region 8 did ask Martin to cancel Saturday’s hearing, saying its key experts on the accident were not available to testify. Privately, however, one ombudsman staff member was more blunt about the reason why Region 8 wanted the hearing canceled, saying, “Frankly, they know they screwed up.”

Among the litany of larger questions that victims say remain to be addressed: What was in the toxic cloud produced by the derailment? Why weren’t residents fully informed about the long-term health risks of returning to their homes? Why have their symptoms and health problems never been fully explained or treated? Will additional testing and sampling be conducted to determine the full extent of victims’ chemical exposure?

“To this day we don’t understand the lack of concern by our own government,” said Lucinda Hodges, an Alberton victim and director of the Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health. “This was a huge event, and the fact that it’s taken nearly five years to have a public hearing is amazing to me. Because we’re rural and poor we’ve been ignored.”

“We trusted these people, only to find out that they did a half-assed job,” said Alberton victim Dixie Robertson. “Now the time has come for the lies to end.”

The ombudsman is expected to hold a second round of hearings and provide Sen. Baucus with a full assessment of the Alberton community and the derailment site. In the meantime, Martin has reassuring words for the victims: “You’re very brave. And for the record, you’re not alone.”

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