Hopes Derailed

Five years after the Alberton chemical spill, victims are still struggling for answers. Will they ever find them?


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In a Euclidean universe, railroad tracks appear to meet but never do. The faster you move toward their apparent convergence, the faster that convergence rushes away from you. While the intersection seems perpetually in sight, it remains forever out of reach. Sometimes, the same goes for the truth.

Five years have passed since that rainy morning of April 11, 1996 when a Montana Rail Link (MRL) train jumped the tracks two miles west of Alberton, derailing 18 cars and releasing 133 tons of toxic chemicals into the environment. The accident forced the evacuation of about 1,200 people for three weeks, sent more than 300 people to the hospital and immediately took the life of one homeless man who was aboard the train.

Five years after the nation’s second-largest chlorine spill from a train and the largest mixed chemical spill in railroad history, many victims have never returned to their homes or businesses, and many others have not been adequately compensated for their losses. For some, fundamental questions remain unanswered, shrouded behind official indifference, bureaucratic foot-dragging, legal stonewalling and corporate silence.

Among them: Exactly what compounds were spilled in the accident? What ones were created? How far did they travel? Why weren’t residents better informed about the long-term health risks of exposure to those chemicals before being allowed back to their homes only weeks, if not days, after the accident? Why have many victims’ symptoms never been fully explained, treated, chronicled or investigated? And what additional testing will be done to determine what contamination remains in Alberton?

There are those who might argue that the Alberton disaster is old news, that the questions being posed today are no different than those that were asked—and answered—five years ago. MRL continues to maintain a public silence about the details of the derailment, and will not say what changes, if any, have been implemented to ensure that such an accident never occurs again. MRL officials declined requests to be interviewed for this story, saying only that “Montana Rail Link is not at liberty to respond to any matters that could potentially relate to Alberton until litigation is settled.”

But on Monday, the first lawsuit to go to trial from the Alberton spill began in federal court in Missoula, that of Samuel Austin of Alpine, Calif., who was chemically injured when the car he was traveling in on Interstate 90 drove through the toxic cloud. With his case, and those of about 80 other plaintiffs who filed suit in state court and are expected to go to trial in June, many of those questions may finally be answered.

But whether the fruition of these lawsuits marks the end of this long toxic nightmare or just the beginning will likely depend upon the outcomes. Although more than 90 percent of the claims filed against MRL have since been settled—and subsequently shrouded behind a veil of confidentiality agreements—for those who have continued their fight, their day in court may also be their last hope of getting definitive answers to what the future holds for them, their children and their community. Insult to Chemical Injury

When it comes to acute toxic exposure, the old adage, “Time heals all wounds” adds insult to chemical injury, since time has a cruel way of compounding the pain of the initial exposure.

“Time does different things to different people,” says Pastor Craig Chambers of the Alberton Community Church. “Some people respond by just putting it behind them, while others respond by becoming embittered. And then there are those who have been doing nothing but asking questions from the very beginning, and in my personal opinion, rightfully so. This is a riff that’s not going to go away easily.”

In the months and years that followed the accident, the Mineral County crisis line saw a spike in the number of cries for help. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, divorce and unemployment all went up. Despite the settlement checks, financial woes remain endemic in the community.

There is no shortage of tales to be told by the victims of Alberton. Their medical complaints alone could fill volumes: Eye and skin irritations; newfound chemical sensitivities; chronic respiratory ailments like asthma, bronchitis, and shortness of breath; cardiac and autoimmune dysfunctions; neurological disorders like seizures, memory loss, disorientation and brain damage, to name but a few.

Shortly after the spill, the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a health survey of 682 Alberton residents and found that about 80 percent of them were experiencing health problems they attributed to the spill.

For most victims, their complaints will never be directly linked to the accident. This is especially true for those who were allowed back into the evacuation zone only days after the spill to rescue their animals. In some cases those residents paid a tragic price for it, suffering chemical injuries that are as bad, if not worse, than those suffered in the initial exposure. Five years later, many of those folks have since watched those animals die of cancer.

The town of Alberton, whose official population at the time of the spill was 354, was—and still is—a community of modest means. In 1996 its average annual income was about $11,000. As a former railroad town, Alberton is a predominantly working class community, and the requisite hard living, drinking and smoking of a blue collar lifestyle takes its inevitable toll.

Sit down with a group of Alberton spill victims and see how long it takes before someone begins coughing. Chances are you won’t wait long. People in their 30s and 40s will tell you about finding strange lumps on their bodies, or recurring flu-like symptoms that last for weeks. One woman speaks of a friend who lived near the railroad tracks in Missoula where a rail car contaminated with soil from the spill site was parked, whose tongue swelled and split open. Her doctor diagnosed her with acute chemical exposure. She was never in Alberton during or after the spill.

A man in the Six-Mile Valley was never evacuated from his home. He now carries a notebook with him wherever he goes so he can remember why he left the house. Still another woman tells of a friend who has driven the same roads near Alberton her entire life, then who one day began blacking out at the wheel and running off the road.

“When someone dies of cancer—and apparently there’s been quite a few of them lately —it brings it all right back up,” says Rev. Chambers. “It becomes a scab that’s pulled off.”

Dixie Robertson grew up on the hillside overlooking the Clark Fork River in Alberton and lives so close to the tracks that when the trains rumble past each night, they can shake the lamps off the table. But it’s not the sound of trains that startles her anymore. It’s the helicopters.

“Every time I see Life Flight fly down here anymore, my heart just drops,” says Robertson, who has watched many of her neighbors evacuated by helicopter and never return. “I’ve seen more sick people in the last five years than in my entire life.”

Like points on the compass, Robertson motions to the houses around her where people have gotten sick or died. To the north, she points out the house where Terry Stewart once lived, until he became ill after going on a pet rescue. To the east, she points to the Stone’s house up the hill. “Ron Stone died last fall. He left a wife, a son in high school and a daughter that just graduated. They landed the helicopter in that field right there.”

To the west, she points toward the Tolker home. Their son was hired to decontaminate houses right after the spill. After leaving work one day, he contracted a bacterial infection that killed him in 10 hours. He was 27 years old. Whether his death was attributable to the spill has never been determined.

Robertson tears up but continues, ticking off the names of other people on her stretch of Southside Road, seemingly healthy people before the spill who died of mysterious causes or have become too sick to leave their homes.

“How many caskets are there gonna be, the way there were in Libby?” asks Robertson. “God, I hope there never are, I really do. But why isn’t anyone more concerned?”

The Many Faces of Victimhood

“The Alberton derailment made so many people victims of every single kind,” says Robbie Flynn of Missoula, who lived about three miles from Alberton and one and a half miles from the derailment site. She never returned to her home. “Victims within the community, victims within the household, victims of your attorneys, and on and on and on.”

That victimization has worn many faces, such as the attorneys who initially agreed to represent spill victims but were soon overwhelmed by the David-and-Goliath odds of the case, as well as by its enormous technical, scientific and financial complexity.

“A lot of victims settled to stay alive,” says John Zeymet, a resident of the Six-Mile Valley whose wife Roxanne spent two and a half weeks in the hospital after the spill. The Zeymets went through three attorneys before they reached a settlement. Other residents were pressured to settle or were told they would be dropped. Flynn had an attorney who just stopped taking her calls.

The victimization has also come from unlikely places, such as from members of Missoula’s medical community, many of whom do not have the expertise to recognize or diagnose complex chemical injuries and who can dismiss real symptoms as insignificant or imagined. John Zeymet knows people in the Six-Mile Valley still suffering from health problems whose medical bills outstripped their settlement money long ago. Others, he says, who have gotten no relief from doctors have given up the fight, or are “living in denial.”

Such experiences are not uncommon in communities that have undergone a severe chemical disaster. Wilma Subra is a chemist and environmental consultant from New Iberia, La., deep in the heart of petrochemical country. Subra also serves as deputy chair of the EPA’s National Advisory Committee, which advises the agency’s top administrator on environmental and policy issues.

“A chemical accident tears apart families,” says Subra, whose own town experienced a train derailment last May. “It tears apart the culture of the community because these people are not the same people they were before, whether it’s merely because of chemical exposure or because of the experiences they’ve been through. Their lives are never the same.”

As Subra notes, victimization often wears the face of bureaucratic intransigence. Many Alberton victims remain deeply skeptical and distrustful of government agencies, which have raised, then shattered, their hopes on too many occasions. Local health departments are no longer involved in the case, nor is the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. ATSDR, which promised the community medical studies, have never looked beyond the effects of chlorine at the other chemicals that may have been present. More than one resident I spoke with dismissed their health study as “a joke.”

Last summer, however, things began to look up. Many residents pinned their hopes on EPA national ombudsman Robert Martin, whose independent investigation of the Alberton spill offered victims their first hope for answers. During a 10-hour hearing at the Boone and Crockett Club in Missoula in November, victims came forward with heart-wrenching stories of their experiences and frustrations. For some victims, just seeing their friends and neighbors together again was enough to bring back all the pain. Several turned around and fled the room in tears, as though it were filled with chlorine gas.

A month later, their hopes were shattered when Martin’s investigation was nipped in the bud by Washington politics that stripped him of his power and autonomy, gutted his investigative staff, and effectively put the Alberton investigation on indefinite hold.

“Joe Citizen thinks that these agencies are going to take care of you,” says Alberton Mayor Sandra Tocei, with a cynical laugh. Tocei is a victim herself, transported twice to the hospital via Life Flight because of severe allergic reactions brought on by heightened chemical sensitivity. “When your doctors don’t know what you were exposed to, you feel like throwing your hands up in the air. But I do applaud these people that have gone on with the fight.”

But while the months and years roll by, the money and bureaucratic attention spans dwindle and statutes of limitations expire, there are those who remain committed to getting their questions answered.

Why They Keep Fighting

Whenever Beverly Ridenour comes home bitter and frustrated after a long day of poring over government documents, there is one thing she does to raise her spirits for the coming day: She pops a copy of Erin Brockovich into the VCR.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Alberton victims who have remained the most vigilant and outspoken in their quest for answers are all mothers with children. Nor is it surprising that they would find inspiration in a real-life single mother whose legal crusade unearthed the truth behind the toxic chemicals that were killing residents of the small rural town of Hinkley, Calif.

Spend an afternoon with Lucinda Hodges and Beverly Ridenour and the similarities to Erin Brockovich can seem downright eerie. While both women suffer from chemical brain injuries that often cloud their memory—the infamous “Alberton brain fog” that is a signature symptom of acute toxic exposure—they can rattle off from memory the names and phone numbers of victims, their children, their symptoms, and the enormous price they have paid: Fractured marriages, bank foreclosures, jobs abandoned because the victims became too chemically sensitive to remain in the workplace. And, of course, the suspicious deaths.

Recently, the similarities to the Brockovich story struck a bit too close to home. While going through records at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Helena, Ridenour uncovered a document that apparently was never turned over to her attorneys or made public. That document, an annual hazardous waste report from 1996, reveals that MRL had shipped large quantities of hazardous waste from the Alberton spill site to two out-of-state disposal facilities: the Chemical Waste Management facility in Port Arthur, Texas and the Grassy Mountain Facility in Clive, Utah.

According to this document, the Port Arthur facility received a shipment of about 1.3 million pounds of solid hazardous waste containing the substance 2,4,6 trichlorophenol. “When you look up data sheets on 2,4,6 trichlorophenol, they’ll scare you to death,” says Ridenour. As they should: 2,4,6 trichlorophenol is a known carcinogen ranked in the top 10 percent of compounds hazardous to human health. Residents of Alberton were never told that they may have been exposed to these compounds, nor was any testing done in the community to identify their presence.

That same DEQ document also reveals that a second, previously unknown shipment of hazardous waste was sent to the Clive, Utah, containing 140,760 lbs. of “Q-Broxin drilling mud thinner,” which includes the notation, “Contains Chromium III.” Chromium III is a class of compounds that humans receive in trace quantities through food, and in greater quantities in cigarette smoke and air pollutants.

Although chromium III is considered somewhat safer than other types of chromium, it can be converted into its far more toxic cousin, chromium VI (hexavalent chromium) when heated and combined with oxygen and a mineral base, such as soda ash. According to records from the Incident Command who managed the accident, quantities of soda ash were spread at the spill site.

If hexavalent chromium sounds familiar to you, it certainly did to Ridenour. It’s the same compound that was causing cancer in the residents of Hinkley, Calif., in Erin Brockovich.

“I’ve never seen any mention of chromium. That is absolutely shocking,” says Darrell Geist of Cold Mountain Cold Rivers, a Missoula environmental group. Geist has claimed for years that the victims of Alberton were never given a full accounting of what chemicals they were exposed to. Back in 1996, while the Alberton disaster was still being characterized as a “chlorine spill,” Geist suspected that other chemicals were also involved but were being downplayed. As a result, he filed a notice of intent to sue for nondisclosure, though never did. Five years later, this revelation confirms his earliest suspicions.

“This really, really troubles me,” adds Geist. “And it tell me that maybe there’s something else that the people are unaware of, that [MRL] was legally required to disclose under EPCRA.”

EPCRA, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986, established databases to inform local emergency planning committees about the chemical hazards in their area. Unfortunately, rail transporters like MRL are exempt from those regulations, unless they spill those loads.

What’s more, MRL should have known that these chemicals were present. Since each hazardous waste facility is only equipped to handle certain types of waste, the shipper must provide the disposal facility with a chemical analysis or “waste profile” describing what that shipment contains. Since waste profiles are considered the private property of the shipper and disposal facility, the plaintiffs’ attorney had to issue a federal subpoena to obtain them.

According to Michael Ysasaga, an attorney with Ted Lyon and Associates, the law firm representing most of the plaintiffs, the waste profile from the Port Arthur facility reveals that known carcinogens were present in that shipment. Ysasaga says that he has an expert witness who will testify that it is “indisputable” that those carcinogenic compounds would have bonded with the chlorine molecules and spread wherever that toxic cloud migrated.

At the request of several Alberton residents, state epidemiologist Dr. Todd Damrow is now investigating possible cancer clusters in the Alberton area. Damrow says that such investigations are somewhat routine—his office gets one or two requests each month—and the preliminary analyses do not appear unusual. However, he notes that he is still compiling data, and in such a sparsely populated area, even one or two overlooked cases could significantly alter the results.

“Cancer is actually not that uncommon a condition. There’s actually a one-in-three lifetime chance of getting it,” says Damrow. “But you never know. Each time we get a call, it may be the next Libby, so we don’t want to take anything for granted.”

Hodges is angry that victims are only now learning about the presence of cancer-causing agents. Had this been documented earlier, she says, ATSDR would have been keeping a registry of all the Alberton victims and tracking their health. But since ATSDR focused exclusively on the chlorine, which is not carcinogenic, the government lost track of where many of these people moved. Even Hodges, who has tried to follow their migration, says some victims have simply disappeared.

Dr. Wayne Sinclair is a Missoula asthma and allergy specialist who treats about 40 victims of the Alberton spill. He says that while he hasn’t seen any new cases of cancer among his own patients, all the Alberton victims will be at increased risk for cancer down the road. He also says that had his patients been informed five years ago about the quantities and concentrations of chemicals that are now being revealed, it could have influenced their decision to return to their homes.

“That would have been critical,” says Sinclair. “If there were large amounts of cresylates and chlorates, I would not have allowed my patients to go back out there before it was cleaned up.”

“This is an example of what I would call O.J. justice,” says another Missoula physician who sees Alberton patients, who asked not to be identified. “I think that the facts have been obscured by high-priced lawyers who have made it so complicated and convoluted that the exact nature of what went on and its importance has been lost. It infuriates me that these poor people have to suffer under these circumstances.”

A Universe of Uncertainty

“The universe of chemical accidents within the United States cannot now be accurately tallied. No comprehensive, reliable historical records exist. Furthermore, the EPA acknowledges that many accidents occurring today at fixed facilities and during transport are not reported to the federal government.”

These ominous words, taken from a 1999 report by the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents, hint at the magnitude of the problems posed by the transport of hazardous materials. The unsettling truth is that train accidents happen every day in this country with alarming frequency, on average about once every 90 minutes, according to the nonprofit watchdog group, RailWatch.

Moreover, about once every two weeks, a train carrying hazardous materials jumps the rails, forcing an evacuation. Meanwhile, federal regulations do not require rail shippers to notify state or local municipalities—including local hazardous materials teams—what dangerous cargoes they are carrying, until an accident occurs. And with 25,000 hazardous waste-filled cars passing through Montana each year, emergency responders here acknowledge that it’s not a question of if, but when and where, the next accident will occur.

While agencies like FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency —are set up to help people in the event of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, as yet there is no government agency that assists communities after a chemical disaster. Likewise, most homeowner policies do not cover chemical disasters. As Hodges puts it, “Chemical accidents fall somewhere between acts of God and acts of vandalism.”

At the time of the Alberton derailment, MRL had the nation’s second-worst safety record of any railroad in its class size. Three years later the railroad was the recipient of a national safety award for 1998, an honor that was remarkably short-lived. Only two months later, MRL experienced three train derailments in 30 days, including one that ruptured a tanker of anhydrous ammonia near the Idaho-Montana border, forcing the evacuation of more than 100 people.

Despite five years of litigation, no one refutes the fact that MRL was the responsible party for this accident. There are those who might say that the railroad satisfied its corporate responsibilities when it paid the EPA’s expenses of $117,419, when it footed the bill for the evacuees’ hotel rooms, dinners, new clothes and toiletries, and when their insurance company cut its settlement checks. But to date, no formal apology has ever been issued by MRL to the victims of Alberton.


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