LIVINGSTON - In the Burlington Northern railroad maintenance shops that once dominated this small, wind-blown mountain town, workers would sometimes complain about the fumes.

Like their counterparts at eastern and southern rail lines, they used powerful degreasers over the decades to clean the diesel locomotives that came through.

And like fellow railroaders in states from Michigan to Florida, their doctors say, they suffered brain damage from it.

At least 27 Montana railroaders have been diagnosed with solvent-induced toxic encephalopathy.

While the first six to file lawsuits had their cases dismissed in 1994, eight others recently received confidential financial settlements from the merged Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

Court records from these lawsuits and interviews with two of the workers and their attorney suggest BN electricians, machinists and laborers may have been exposed to solvent fumes without adequate ventilation or proper respiratory protection from the 1960s through at least the early 1990s.

The working conditions bear striking similarity to those that have produced large and small settlements for at least 466 current or former employees of CSX Transportation Inc. and railroads that became part of CSX, such as the old Louisville & Nashville line.

"These chemicals - they ruined my life," said James Bales, a Kentucky native now living in Livingston and one of the eight to secure a settlement from BNSF.

BNSF acknowledged in a statement that it had reached solvent exposure settlements with several workers "on a compromise basis."

But the company pointed out that a first group of six Montana workers to sue lost their cases in U.S. District Court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined in 1994 that written statements from the workers' doctors were deficient.

"BNSF concluded that the claimants had not been exposed to toxic levels of the substances in question and had not sustained any injury as a result of their work with these substances," said company spokesman Gus Melonas in Seattle.

Attorney William Rossbach of Missoula, Mont., who picked up the cases after the appeals court ruling and secured settlements for the group of eight workers, said they were exposed to "a chemical soup" as they toiled in pits where solvent vapors settled.

Internal railroad documents uncovered by Rossbach for a separate BN exposure case, involving solvents in paint, showed the workers had cause to be concerned:

[U+2022] A 1979 petition signed by 77 BN workers from Livingston complained to corporate executives about fumes and called for improved ventilation.

[U+2022] A 1979 memo by a BN engineering director called on his company to stop using perchloroethylene because it was too toxic.

[U+2022] A 1981 letter from the company's chief medical officer announced the start of a companywide respiratory protection program that "represents the minimum" but which "meets all requirements." The official acknowledged in the letter that "We have been cited in the past for not having such a program."

[U+2022] A 1982 memo from the company's industrial hygienist said perchloroethylene fumes within the breathing zone of the man who operated a degreasing pit in Livingston were "more than two times the recommended level."

BNSF declined to comment on the documents.

Livingston was once home to the biggest railroad maintenance facility between St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle. By the mid-1970s, BN employed 1,150 people in a town of about 7,500.

But by 1986, BN closed up its Livingston shops, moving many workers, including Bales and former BN electrician Bert Gentry, to West Burlington, Iowa. Some of the others moved to shops in Alliance, Neb.

Gentry, a 30-year railroad worker, was taken out of service in 1989 at age 52 by his neurologist, Dr. Richard Nelson of Billings, Mont.

"Bert was always a happy-go-lucky guy," Frances Gentry said. "The mood swings - that's the part I noticed. He'd get irrational. He still does."

Bales, 57, a decorated Vietnam War flight mechanic with 800 sorties, worked 21 years as a machinist.

On his railroad wages he and his wife, Linda, raised two sons. He coached Little League baseball and served on a wintertime search and rescue team in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park.

In 1991, Dr. Marc Hines, a neurologist in Ottumwa, Iowa, took Bales out of service.

"He started losing his memory," Linda Bales said. "I'd tell him something and a day later he couldn't remember, and he'd get really angry with me."

(c) 2001 Courier Journal and Louisville Times Co., reprinted with permission.