You're digging in your garden after a good rain and you feel sick. You avoid the fertilizer aisle in the hardware store because you can't breathe after standing there for five minutes. Your children have small, uncharacteristic bumps on their scalps.
These and other mysterious symptoms continue to plague many residents of Alberton more than three years after a Montana Rail Link train derailed, causing the worst chemical spill by a railroad in America. The wreck along I-90 in April 1996 released the contents of a tank car of chlorine gas and spilled almost all of another tank car-17,000 gallons-of used potassium cresylate, which serves to clean gasoline during the refining process.
You would have thought that when the federal government came to Mineral Community Hospital earlier this month to offer free health exams for victims of the spill, survivors would have lined up around the block. Not so.
Instead, the Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health (ACCEH) recently urged residents to boycott the screenings offered by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), says the coalition's director Lucinda Hodges. In fact, only 43 of the hundreds of people exposed to the spill signed up for appointments, according to the physician conducting the exams, Dr. Cynthia Younger, of the University of Utah's Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. The exams are "medical evaluations looking at all organ systems," Younger says, including kidneys, liver, and lungs.
The Alberton group opposes participation on the grounds that the exams focus too narrowly on the impacts of one-time chlorine gas exposure, rather than long-term exposure to an unidentified chemical cocktail carried in the potassium cresylate, possibly including PCBs, phenols, and heavy metals. While chlorine clearly causes respiratory and sinus problems-primarily by burning out lung tissue-it's not clear if it caused the memory loss and other neurological disorders many Alberton residents experience.
"It's a vague thing you can't put your finger on," says Curt McComb, one of the few survivors willing to go on the record with the Independent. "You know what you want to say but you can't access it." McComb didn't sign up for the government-sponsored exam. "I didn't see any gains from the testing," he says.
While Younger maintains that the ATSDR exams do not focus solely on chlorine, she says there is "no definite proof" that residents were exposed to anything else, so it's difficult to connect symptoms to any other specific cause. Chronic sinusitis and respiratory problems, along with depression and anxiety stemming from the aftermath of the spill, are the primary diagnoses Younger was able to enumerate.
This "lack of proof" for other exposure is what provoked the ACCEH to pull out of the screenings, says Hodges. "We want to bring the science to bear on these anecdotal things that people are experiencing. ATSDR's mission is to 'prevent harm to human health and diminished quality of life from exposure to hazardous substances.' We feel that they've done nothing at all to mitigate or prevent human health effects from ongoing exposure here."
ATSDR has tested people at other sites for phenols and dioxins, and that is what is needed in Alberton, Hodges says. "We want them to do their job. Instead we've been told for three years, 'You need to see a psychologist because you think you're sick.'"
According to Hodges, some residents have received costly private evaluations, including PET scans that show brain damage. In contrast to the low turnout for ATSDR's exams, people had to be turned away when Dr. Kaye Kilburn screened victims shortly after the spill and again earlier this month.
An authority on environmental medicine at the University of Southern California, Kilburn has, by conducting many studies of individuals involved in accidents and groups living near industrial sites, established a strong connection between declines in cognitive function and chemical exposure. Paid for by attorneys of Alberton victims, Kilburn's battery of tests measured their balance, memory recall, and vision. Kilburn could not be reached before press time, but his company web site indicates that the Alberton group did exhibit signs of impaired function seven weeks after the spill. Results of the follow-up study have not yet been published, but according to Hodges, spill victims have in fact experienced the types of long-term decline that Kilburn predicted at the spill's outset.
The feeling that ATSDR did little to help after spending years on reports has left residents bitter and disillusioned with the government's ability to protect them. With the help of Sen. Max Baucus (D), the ACCEH convinced Environmental Protection Agency Ombudsman Robert Martin to open an investigation into the Alberton spill. When complete, the investigation will "create a new public record that hopefully will bring to light answers to the questions we had," says Hodges.
"You go on with your life. You do forget about it, but it's still there," says Curt McComb. "We were never given the true story of what was out there."