Ombudsman could be town's ticket



Victims of a 1996 train derailment that spilled 133,000 pounds of chemicals near Alberton, Mont., may finally get some help. Though Montana Rail Link and the Environmental Protection Agency cleaned up a 30-acre area after the spill, many residents continue to complain of lingering pollution and illness. But neither the company nor the regional office of the EPA has responded (HCN, 4/28/97).

In November, however, Montana Sen. Max Baucus, D, helped Alberton residents convince EPA ombudsman Robert Martin to hold a hearing. Nearly 100 residents told Martin that the chemicals - sodium chlorate, chlorine and potassium cresylate - continue to cause rashes, headaches, tremors and burns, and have made the town reek. Community leader Lucinda Hodges, who fears she has suffered permanent brain damage from the spill, called the hearing "a heartwarming, emotional, blood-letting day."

Rail Link attorney Randy Cox, who also attended Martin's meeting, thought differently. No scientific tests, he says, point to a lingering hazard in the area, and he charged that the only victims who spoke at the meeting were involved in unsettled lawsuits with Rail Link. "They shouldn't be talking about this in public," says Cox.

Spencer Haynes of the ombudsman's office says, "Our process is an open dialogue that allows us to get to the truth." Martin will hold a second meeting sometime in the next few months, after which he could recommend that the EPA study the site more thoroughly.

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