Alberton, Mont. - When sirens pierced the air before dawn last April 11, Lucinda Hodges awoke to find workers in Haz-Mat suits scrambling through the streets in a thick, white fog. Then it hit her.
"I'll never forget that feeling," she
says. "You breathe and there's no air. You felt like you were
In a matter of minutes, she was
fleeing the small town she had called home for 10
Today, one year later, Hodges says she
still can't go home without feeling ill. "My house is ... toxic,"
she says. She and other "Alberton refugees' claim they've been left
in the lurch by the company responsible for what has been called
the largest mixed-chemical train spill in U.S.
The saga began when 18 cars of a Montana
Rail Link freight train jumped the tracks just outside Alberton, 30
miles west of Missoula. The wreck left tanker cars spewing chlorine
gas and other chemicals.
More than 500 people
fled their homes at 4 a.m., while 120 were rushed to area
hospitals. For the next 17 days, hazardous waste crews worked to
patch the leaking tankers.
The railroad put the
evacuees up in motels, and according to the Missoulian, J. Randal
Little, of Railway Claims insurance, assured the victims, "Every
dime that you lose will be taken care of." Company president
William Brodsky added, "We're going to be with you for the long
But the "long haul" didn't prove to be
long enough, say some residents. When they approached the railroad
about recovering damages and lost wages, officials asked them to
sign a release form before handing out money. The release freed the
company of any liability for illness or damage caused by the spill,
according to Randy Cox, MRL attorney.
immediately, accepting settlement checks that residents say ranged
from $100 to $5,000. "That looks like a big sum of money," says
Sharon Leachman, who took $5,000 for her signature, "until you
start paying medical bills after the fact. I lived there for three
years and had no problems; then the spill happened and I've had a
hell of a time with my health."
complains of a swollen throat and joint problems, and she lifts her
pants leg to reveal skin covered in hives. "My doctor told me not
to go back to the land," she says, "but I have nowhere else to go."
Others, like Lucinda Hodges, refused to sign.
She fell ill each time she went home, and soon lost her job as a
receptionist. At first, MRL was responsive to her concerns. "I
stayed in a motel for 100 days," she says. "Then MRL cut me off."
She guesses that there are at least a dozen
other "refugees' biding their time until they can go home without
the headaches, rashes and disorientation the place seems to
trigger. Many have lost jobs and health benefits. Some have turned
to welfare for relief. Hodges has joined with other spill victims
to form Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health, a
group dedicated to helping those in financial and medical
They have asked MRL to pay to have their
homes and gardens tested for residual chemicals. So far, neither
the company nor any government agency has done any testing.
However, one federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substance and
Disease Registry, is conducting a health study of town residents
that will be completed later this year.
residents have lost hope that Alberton will ever be safe. "People
don't go outside," says Hodges. "It smells like Weed and Feed." She
estimates that 50 to 60 people have left for good, making a very
small town even smaller.
Montana Rail Link
insists that the danger is past. "Reclamation of the site is 100
percent," says MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost. As for residents who
are still sick, she adds, "We are not planning to abandon them. We
will work with them until they are satisfied and comfortable."
But according to Sharon Leachman, "The stuff is
still there, and I don't think it's ever going to go away."
For more information, call the Alberton
Community Coalition for Environmental Health at 406/722-3325 or the
Montana Rail Link at
The writer is working
on a master's degree in environmental studies at the University of
Montana in Missoula.