Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health
P.O. Box 8733, Missoula, MT, 59807 phone/fax 406-728-7572
June 21, 2002
To the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee,
Re: Letter of Support for S.B. 606 EPA Ombudsman Reauthorization.
The Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health is a non-profit chemical injury advocacy group dedicated to improving the quality of life for victims of the April 11th, 1996, Montana Rail Link train derailment and chemical spill: the largest mixed chemical spill in railroad history. Members of ACCEH have worked with the Ombudsman since 1998 and the Alberton, MT, site is one of many open investigations that has been left pending. It is our highest hope that you will stand behind both the man and the office and vote in favor of Senate Bill 606.
The following testimony is offered to illustrate the effects of living in a contaminated community and the reason why this nation needs an Independent EPA National Ombudsman who performs the job with both courage and integrity.
April 11th, 1996, the numbers:
-- 133 tons -- 71 tons of spent oil refinery waste spilled and combined with 62 tons of chlorine creating a toxic plume that closed I-90 for 17 days.
-- An initial “hot zone” of 72 square miles resulted in over 1,200 people evacuating from their homes, 352 people were treated at local hospitals, and one man died from exposure to toxic fumes.
-- 25,000 hazardous waste filled railcars annually pass through Montana -The Last
Best Place - with an average of 5.3 accidents each month. In 1995 & 1996, Montana Rail Link was ranked by the FRA as having the 2nd highest accident record for its class of railroad.
-- Recent soil sampling revealed dioxins remain in the soil on the derailment site.
The story behind the numbers:
Despite all assurances from the EPA that the “hot zone” was safe for returning evacuees' many residents and workers experienced a wide range of debilitating health problems upon entering the former "hot zone". Reported acute symptoms ranged from shortness of breath, headaches, migraines, blurred and double vision, nausea, dizziness, loss of concentration, muscle twitching, fatigue, skin rashes, joint pain to chronic conditions that developed over time such as seizures, balance disorders, lupus, asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, cancer, and toxic encephalopathy. Thus began what is still an unresolved and tragic controversy that revolves around this simple question -- Is it really safe to live in Alberton, MT?
By 1998, after YEARS of phone calls, letters, costly trips to EPA Region 8 Headquarters in Denver, Colorado, Washington D.C., the production of a documentary film, “A Toxic Train Ran Through It,” and several well researched masters thesis's delving into the consequences of exposure to 133 tons of toxic waste --were ignored by EPA officials -- ACCEH petitioned the office of the National Ombudsman of the EPA to intervene. Shortly thereafter Robert Martin visited the community, met with individuals, reviewed public documents, and determined an investigation was warranted.
In November of 2000 more than five years after the derailment the first public and only hearing was held by EPA National Ombudsman, Robert Martin, in Missoula, MT. newspaper editor, Ken Picard, reported at the time, "For 10 grueling hours they brought forth medical records, news articles, videotapes, and photographs of defoliated trees and chemically injured animals. Some displayed large plastic bags and tackle boxes full of the prescription drugs they now rely on to survive. Mothers spoke of previously healthy children who can no longer play sports and whose medical bills total in the tens of thousands of dollars. Others asked why schools and playgrounds were never remediated, what became of the toxic soil hauled through Missoula, and why residents weren't put through the same rigorous decontamination measures as rescuers. Grown men who recounted their experiences were reduced to tears and could not continue with their testimony. Their hopes are pinned on Robert Martin, national ombudsman for the environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who was asked to hold these hearings by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.)."
The ombudsman promised to conduct a second hearing and provide Senator Baucus with a full assessment of the Alberton community and the derailment site. Mr. Martin concluded the hearing with these words; "You're very brave. And for the record, you're not alone." Unfortunately, we are once again alone. Ombudsman Robert Martin, has not been able to keep his promise to the people of Alberton, MT due to direct and purposeful interference from the agency he is mandated to police. Only weeks after the hearing in Missoula, MT, ACCEH received this memo from Ombudsman Martin, “In view of reported recent personnel transfers and pending implementation of EPA Ombudsman Guidelines . all schedules for all National Ombudsman cases have been put on hold and/or delayed until further notice.”
What we have learned in over seven years of working with the EPA is that there is no such thing for an average American citizen as a "working" relationship with the EPA. There is no legitimate process for citizen complaints within the hierchy of the agency. Without reauthorization of the Ombudsman legislation this investigation and many others will never be completed. Years of work by local volunteers will be lost forever, and one more contaminated community will be left in an untenable position. A position that is well defined by Professor Michael R. Edelstein in his book, Contaminated Communities, “Most toxic victims suffer from citizen's bind. In seeking publicity, they enhance their community's stigma. In actively seeking answers, they enhance their level of stress. In depending on government for assistance, they are likely to be disappointed. And facing a mitagory gap, wherein an extended period of time elapses between the definition of the exposure and the execution of the steps to correct it, victims may find themselves trapped in a situation where they are damned no matter what they do.”
What has prevailed in Alberton, MT, are corporate politics, bad science, poor site management, and no accountability for millions of superfund dollars. The real-life human consequences of this malfeasance have been documented and witnessed everyday over the past seven years in our little town by chronic illness, blighted housing, boarded up business's, and dislocated families with the tab mostly being picked-up by the American tax payer every time someone's mother, father, or child, requires assistance from social services, disability, or full time care-taking. The true social and economic costs to our town and this nation for the broken lives of the chemically injured are staggering.
In closing, we thank you for holding this hearing and we respectfully request that Robert Martin be reinstated as the EPA's National Ombudsman and be allowed to finish the investigations he began and continue on under this legislation as a truly independent EPA National Ombudsman that the entire nation can be proud of.
P. O. Box 8733
Missoula, MT 59807