Remembering Alberton



Three years after a Montana Rail Link train derailed near Alberton, releasing a deadly toxic cloud that forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents from the small rural community some 30 miles west of Missoula, victims of that chemical accident are still struggling to cope with the plume of troubles it left behind, including acute health problems, financial insolvency, a fractured community, and plenty of unanswered questions.

The derailment, which occurred in the early morning hours of April 11, 1996, unleashed a toxic soup of 129,000 pounds of chlorine gas, 85 pounds of sodium chlorate and 136,000 pounds of potassium cresylate (oil refinery waste), sending hundreds fleeing to area hospitals and shelters for more than two weeks. It was the largest mixed chemical spill by an American railroad in history, and the second largest chlorine spill from a train, ever.

Marking this week's third anniversary of the Alberton spill is a new documentary, A Toxic Train Ran Through It, produced by University of Montana graduate student Lisa Mosca. The video traces events and issues following the accident, including the evacuation and cleanup, the information that was (or was not) provided to victims and emergency responders before they returned to the contaminated zone, and the potential health risks posed by their decision to return.

“Had that chlorine spill happened in the city of Missoula, we just simply would not have been able to deal with it without major resources, like the entire National Guard.”—Police Chief Pete Lawrenson
Photo by Chad Harder

"We've never had full public disclosure on all the chemicals we were exposed to," says Lucinda Hodges, a former Alberton resident and organizer of the Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health, a citizens' group that tracks the health problems of more than 200 victims of the spill. Their litany of complaints range from eye and skin irritation to chronic respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and shortness of breath, to cardiac and autoimmune dysfunctions, to serious neurological disorders such as migraines, seizures, and brain damage.

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 the people interviewed were experiencing health problems they attributed to the spill. The second phase of that study-comparing those results to a control group in nearby communities unaffected by the spill-is due out this summer.

The documentary raises other disturbing questions about how the accident was handled. Hope Sieck, a member of the Missoula Emergency Planning Committee, asks why evacuees, emergency responders and others involved in pet and livestock rescues were allowed back into the contaminated zone only days after the spill without being warned of the potential exposure levels, without protective gear, decontamination, or even accurate medical information necessary to make informed decisions about their own safety.

Others question what steps have been taken by MRL to prevent a similar accident from occurring again. MRL spokesperson Lynda Frost says that pending litigation precludes her from discussing what changes, if any, have been implemented since the derailment, except to say that "we believe our negligence did not cause the derailment."

"I think most of us that are in leadership positions regarding disasters are really under the opinion that it's not if it's going to happen, it's when it's going to happen," says Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson. "We don't want to go out and cause a degree of panic or paranoia in the community, but had that chlorine spill happened in the city of Missoula, we just simply would not have been able to deal with it without major resources, like the entire National Guard."

Complicating emergency planning efforts is a large unknown variable, namely, what types and quantities of toxic chemicals are traveling through the Missoula Valley at any given time. The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 established databases to inform local emergency planning committees about chemical hazards in their area. Unfortunately, transporters like MRL are exempt from those regulations.

A needs assessment document, prepared in cooperation with the Alberton Community Advisory Group and ATSDR is expected to be released April 19. It will focus on problems that remain unresolved in Alberton, such as creating an emergency evacuation plan, additional environmental sampling and further medical testing of victims.

In the meantime, no one has publicly documented the total financial damages inflicted upon the people of Alberton, though anecdotal accounts abound. (One man in the video estimates his son's medical expenses at over $40,000.) Even before the accident, Alberton was a small, rural community of modest means, with an average annual income of about $11,000 a year.

Dozens of residents suffering from the most acute symptoms have since abandoned their homes and businesses forever. While MRL says that over 90 percent of the victims have settled their claims, Hodges asserts that many, feeling the bite of financial pressures or fearing no compensation at all, settled with the railroad early on for paltry sums. Others may wait years before getting their day in court.

"We're still to this day talking about what does the future hold for our kids," says Alberton resident Deb Griffin, who lived about a mile and a half from the derailment. "My daughter every day talks about how she can't wait to be a mommy, and I'm afraid some day it's going to be a matter of telling her, you may want to think twice about it."

A screening of A Toxic Train Ran Through It will be shown at 7 p.m. on April 11 in Urey Hall on UM campus. Admission is free.

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