Sacramento River Hit by Pesticide Spill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A derailed Southern Pacific tanker car spilled as much as 19,000 gallons of a toxic pesticide into the Sacramento River 50 miles north of Redding, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents, killing tens of thousands of fish and devastating the ecosystem along a 40-mile stretch of the waterway, officials said Monday.

The spill in southern Siskiyou County on Sunday night forced the temporary closure of a 60-mile stretch of Interstate 5 and briefly engulfed the small Northern California town of Dunsmuir in a noxious cloud of gas.

At least two dozen people sought treatment at local hospitals, mostly for headaches, dizziness, nausea and eye irritation. By noon today, the toxic compound was expected to reach Lake Shasta, a key source of drinking water for millions of Californians.

Federal officials who maintain Shasta Dam said the chemical is unlikely to pose a threat to the state's water supply because it will be sufficiently diluted once it hits the reservoir, which currently holds 550 billion gallons of water.

Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said his agency will halt all releases of water from Shasta Reservoir if tests show there is serious contamination from the spill.

"Should there be any concern that there is a threat to the health of people downstream, that's one of the approaches that we could take," McCracken said. "In other words, Shasta would become like a big holding pond until the substance is thoroughly diluted."

Gov. Pete Wilson received a briefing from experts Monday afternoon and was weighing whether to visit the scene today to inspect the damage.

"Obviously he is very concerned about this," said Bill Livingstone, Wilson's spokesman. "All departments are acting very appropriately to protect public health."

Dunsmuir officials called for an investigation of Southern Pacific operations in the area, where at least one derailment a year has occurred. Shasta County Sheriff Jim Pope declared a local emergency.

Wildlife experts, meanwhile, were gravely concerned about the toll the chemical will take on the river's ecosystem, including a trout fishery that many anglers agree is the best in California.

Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run), who represents the area where the spill occurred, surveyed the river from the air and described the episode as "probably one of the worst ecological river spills ever on record in our north state."

"The chemical is killing 100% of the fish it is contacting as it moves from the site of the spill to Lake Shasta," said Tom Mullins, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services. "The stream is obviously in extremely bad shape."

Paul Wertz, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game in Redding, said the spill "looks devastating" and "has the potential to wipe out a large portion of the fishery on the upper river, if not all of it."

The timing of the spill, Wertz added, "could not have been worse." Not only is it the height of the fishing season, but the river also is filled with young fish from the spring spawning season.

River-dwelling insects--the foundation of the food chain--also have been wiped out, officials said. And fish populations in Lake Shasta--including catfish, perch, bass and bluegill--also may be in jeopardy, Wertz said, noting that "the toxic effects could persist for weeks or even months."

Initially, Fish and Game officials feared that California bald eagles--which feed on fish--could be in jeopardy. But spokesman Ted Thomas said toxicologists have concluded that there is no danger to animals that ingest poisoned fish. The chemical apparently will kill on contact but will not be present in lethal concentrations in the flesh of fish.

The loss of the fishery, however, will eliminate a prime food source for wildlife, Wertz said, including raccoons, bear and possibly river otters.

"The fishery is the big concern," Wertz said. "Assuming we have to start over, with plantings (of fish), it could take years to recover."

The spill occurred at Cantera Loop, a hairpin turn in the river six miles north of Dunsmuir, a remote community of about 3,000. A locomotive and seven cars en route from Colton, Calif., to Eugene, Ore., left the tracks just before 10 p.m. Sunday near a bridge at the edge of the river, said Bob Hoppe, a Southern Pacific spokesman in San Francisco. The cause of the derailment was unknown. The two crewmen on board were not injured.

Two of the cars tumbled down an embankment into the water and the tanker car was punctured, Hoppe said. It contained alco metam-sodium, a liquid pesticide.

When the chemical hit the water, it broke down into hydrogen sulfide, a gas, and methyl isothiocyanate, a chemical that emits a toxic gas, according to toxicologists with the Department of Fish and Game. The gases drifted south to Dunsmuir, engulfing the community in a rotten-egg smell.

A spokeswoman at Mercy Medical Center Lake Shasta said 25 people had been treated for minor symptoms by nightfall Monday, and added "they're still trickling in." A fisherman on the river, Glen Thesin of San Jose, suffered skin and eye irritation, and California Highway Patrol Officer Ed Kopping said a patrolman working in the area was overcome with nausea.

Within hours of the spill, local and county officials began evacuating residents along the river and posting signs warning people not to fish. State park rangers spent the day roaming campgrounds near the scenic waterway, evacuating vacationing families and anglers. Emergency shelters were established at two high schools, and more than 115 people sought help.

Dunsmuir officials, meanwhile, complained that railroad practices were in need of scrutiny by Southern Pacific. They said at least one derailment a year occurs near their city, located in an area where treacherous tracks follow the winding course of the river. This one, however, is the worst in memory, threatening one of the city's main sources of income--tourism.

The city used to rely on the railroad and on the lumber business for jobs and dollars. But "now we've mostly got the fishermen," said Mayor Virginia Barham.

"It's going to hurt, no doubt about it," Barham said. "We've already heard about cancellations.

"It's an awful thing and I hope the worst is behind us," she said. "It would behoove Southern Pacific to look into their practices."

Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this story from Sacramento.

BACKGROUND

Metam-sodium, the pesticide that spilled into the Sacramento River, is a soil fumigant used against weeds, nematodes and insects. It is applied to the soil before the planting of many California crops, including fruits, vegetables and cotton. In 1989, there were 4.7 million pounds of metam-sodium used in the state. When diluted, the chemical degrades rapidly into methyl isothiocyanate (MITC) and hydrogen sulfide, a gas. Exposure to MITC can cause extreme skin, eye and respiratory irritation but no long-term health effects. It is extremely toxic to fish, but much less toxic to birds and other animals.

Chemical Spill

A Southern Pacific tanker car derailed and spilled 19,500 gallons of a toxic weed-killer into the Sacramento River on Sunday night, about six miles north of Dunsmuir. The site is about 30 miles north of Lake Shasta, a key part of the state's drinking-water system.

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