Residual effects 

Alberton residents skeptical despite EPA findings

Almost six years after a train derailment spilled more than 100 tons of toxic chemicals just outside of Alberton, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the town’s soil and groundwater are safe.

The community remains skeptical, though, particularly since the catalyst of the investigation, EPA ombudsman Robert Martin, is suing his own agency, claiming an effort to silence him.

Now a federal judge has temporarily sided with Martin, granting an injunction blocking his transfer to the EPA Inspector General’s office. In Alberton, meanwhile, the community is mulling over a narrowing set of options.

The EPA released the results of its site investigation of the Alberton spill at two public meetings in the town this week.

“They didn’t find any smoking guns,” says Nancy Mueller, the Denver-based EPA official who has been the liaison with the Alberton community.

The EPA used several independent contractors to take soil and groundwater samples from Alberton over the course of a week in September 2001. They were looking for residual contaminants from the mixed chemical spill that occurred there in April of 1996.

Although trace levels of some chemicals probably related to the spill were found, none was present in levels the EPA considers hazardous, says Alan Humphrey, an EPA scientist in New Jersey who oversaw the investigation.

“It appears that an adequate cleanup was conducted,” he says, noting that more than 1,000 yards of soil were excavated in the aftermath of the derailment.

About 25 residents showed up for the public meeting Tuesday night in the lunchroom of Alberton Elementary School. Many left with unanswered questions.

“This sounds good for the derailment site, but it didn’t answer any questions for me for what they found in our area,” said Patty Freese after the meeting.

After the spill, Freese says her hair turned bright orange, her husband’s red beard turned white, her doorknob turned green, and her blue spruce trees turned magenta. She also lost 30 percent of her lung capacity and experienced burns over her skin, her husband’s eye was singed with chemicals, and their Siamese cat died of lung damage.

Roger Chalmers, who lives in nearby Nine Mile, echoed Freese’s concern about the scope of the data.

“I’m glad to see the chemicals at the site are relatively low, but that says nothing about the surrounding residential areas,” said Chalmers, who still suffers a burning sensation in his eyes nearly six years later.

The testing came about after Martin visited Alberton and Missoula in late 2000 and held pubic hearings. Many residents, some forced to evacuate their homes and stricken with illnesses, complained of an inadequate response by the government. Martin’s hearings led to the recent site investigation.

“We begged and pleaded and petitioned and wrote letters and flew all over the country for years requesting this testing,” says Lucinda Hodges, a former Alberton resident who heads the Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health. “We didn’t get it until we got Robert Martin involved. Until you find the right places to apply pressure I don’t think you can get something done like this as a community.”

As the EPA’s national ombudsman, Martin receives complaints and investigates the EPA’s handling of hazardous waste cleanup issues. In late November, EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman decided to move Martin into the office of the EPA Inspector General, saying it would grant the ombudsman more independence and impartiality.

Martin disagreed, saying it would effectively dissolve the ombudsman function. He then sued to stop the transfer, accusing Whitman of trying to neutralize him so he could not investigate a Colorado Superfund settlement that she has a personal stake in.

On Jan. 11, a judge ruled in Martin’s favor, putting the transfer of Martin’s office on hold.

“It would be wonderful if he could get the politicians off his back and come back and finish off the investigation,” says Hodges.

The resistance Martin has encountered within the EPA over the last year has left him with few resources, says Hodges. “He can’t follow up on things like this report, which of course would be the ideal thing, that we would have him watch-dogging this.”

The future of the Alberton spill investigation now lies in the hands of the EPA office in Montana.

“We’ll be looking to see if there’s been any continuing exposure,” says Rosemary Rowe, site assessment manager for the EPA in Helena. “We’ll be making a determination of whether there will be any further investigation under the Superfund program or not.”

Given the amount of data that already has been collected, Rowe thinks the assessment will be done in less than a year.

According to Hodges, her group does not necessarily want Alberton to become a Superfund site.

“We did petition for Superfund status years ago, but it was strictly a method to get the testing,” says Hodges. “Superfund is a pretty big bureaucracy. I don’t necessarily know that that would be a solution for Alberton.”

There are a number of outcomes the EPA could decide on, including a more limited state Superfund designation. Based on the soil and water data that was collected, Nancy Mueller doubts the site will qualify for federal Superfund designation. The data that was collected, she says, indicates that the threat is over.

For Hodges, the lasting frustration is that the wheels are turning at such a slow rate, and that it took so long for the process to begin.

“You can’t come in six years later and think you’re going to close the door to the problems that have existed all these years,” she says. “I just think it’s a terrible shame that they waited this long and didn’t come in six months afterwards with all the complaints that were happening at the time.”

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