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Know the West

Montana train accident derailed a small town


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 suffocating."

In a matter of minutes, she was fleeing the small town she had called home for 10 years.

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. history.

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 haul."

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.

Many signed 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."

Leachman 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 trouble.

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.

Many 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 406/523-1500.

The writer is working on a master's degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana in Missoula.