A 10-mile-long toxic chemical plume that spewed from a derailed tanker car into the upper Sacramento River was expected to reach California’s biggest reservoir today, after devastating a stretch of the river’s ecosystem, experts said. Some predicted it would take 10 years for the river to recover.
The smelly, yellow-green slick continued to kill all aquatic life in its path as it meandered toward Lake Shasta, including tens of thousands of fish that could be seen bobbing belly-up on the river’s tranquil surface. Reported sightings of dead otters, birds and other animals could not be confirmed.
Siskiyou County Sheriff Charlie Bird and his deputies went door-to-door asking Dunsmuir residents to again voluntarily leave their homes as a new cloud of noxious fumes made its way from the river toward town. The fumes apparently had stalled over the river but winds started sweeping them toward Dunsmuir late Tuesday.
Health officials said releases from the lake, a primary source of agricultural and drinking water for California, would continue for now because it is expected to take at least 15 days for the plume to reach Shasta Dam at the southern end of Lake Shasta. By that time, experts expect the pesticide to have been diluted and rendered harmless by the vast quantity of water in the reservoir. Nonetheless, several small local agencies that draw from the lake or immediately below it planned to switch to other water sources if tests find the chemical in dangerous concentrations.
State Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler, one of three of Gov. Pete Wilson’s cabinet members to visit the site of the spill Tuesday, called it “an ecological disaster” and reported seeing fish fleeing in a desperate, frantic mass ahead of the plume, swimming up tributaries to avoid the poison.
In some streams where the water was only inches deep, the fleeing fish had stacked up “like cordword,” a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game said.
Environmentalists called the spill an outrage. They quickly demanded an investigation of railroad operations in the area and pledged to push for laws to regulate the type of products that may be transported through the steep, forested canyon where the Southern Pacific tanker car jumped the tracks Sunday night, spilling its contents into the river.
“The fish kill is total, absolute, and that river will take years to recover,” said David Bolling, executive director of Friends of the River. “When you sterilize the entire stream bed, it’s a disaster . . . I can’t recall a catastrophe of this scope in California.”
Jim Pedri, supervising engineer of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board in Redding, said, “The river is dead. Insects, worms, fish, you name it. Everything is gone.”
Pedri said test results showed that, at the spill’s peak on Monday, the pesticide measured 97 milligrams per liter in the river. It only takes a concentration of .07 milligrams per liter to kill fish.
By Tuesday, the plume of pesticides showed a reading of 18 milligrams per liter at its worst. Even where the plume had passed by, officials were getting measurements of 1.7 milligrams per liter--still more than enough to kill river life.
The conservation group California Trout, meanwhile, accused Southern Pacific officials of breaking a verbal promise to use extra locomotives to help push long trains through the rugged river canyon where the spill occurred. Richard May said the railroad agreed to the measure--which experts said can minimize the risk of derailments--after an April 10, 1976, accident and spill that killed 50,000 fish along a stretch of the river in the same area.
“We had a lot of death and destruction after that detergent spill and SP officials agreed in good faith to take this step,” said May, president of the organization that works to protect native fisheries and their habitat. “That was clearly not done in this case. . . . As a result we have destroyed a fishery that will take 10 years to recover.”
Pedri, whose agency sued Southern Pacific and received a settlement of $50,000 to rehabilitate the river after the 1976 spill, confirmed the railroad had agreed to use additional locomotive power on certain trains.
But Southern Pacific spokesman Bob Hoppe said he was unaware of any agreement. In a statement, company President Mike Mohan said the train that derailed “was operating at a safe speed and under appropriate guidelines for such conditions.”
Mohan said Southern Pacific “is absolutely committed to conducting the clean-up as quickly as possible” and is willing to fund the prompt restocking of trout and other fish in the devastated stretch of river.
Initially deterred by noxious gases emitted when the chemical mixed with river water, investigators began surveying the accident site Tuesday, and ran test trains across the tricky stretch of track where the derailment occurred.
Both the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board had investigators on site, but neither agency released any information about what may have caused the train to jump the tracks.
A regional official with Southern Pacific blamed a lurch caused by slipping locomotive wheels, but Hoppe said “we still consider it under investigation.” One potential cause--human error--has been ruled out by Southern Pacific, Hoppe said. Other factors possibly responsible for the accident, which caused $259,000 in damage to the railbed and train, include track or equipment problems.
Southern Pacific could face a fine of up to $20,000 if it is found guilty of a willful violation of federal railroad rules, said Claire Austin, a spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration. Records show Southern Pacific trains have been involved in 2,481 accidents statewide since 1975.
State officials with jurisdiction over rail commerce said the steep, winding stretch of track north of Dunsmuir is extremely challenging and is the site of frequent derailments.
Jack Rich, supervisor of the Railroad Operations and Safety Section of the California Public Utilities Commission, said records show that eight “major derailments” occurred in the area between 1981 and 1989. An audit is under way to obtain records of accidents since then, he said, and to assess Southern Pacific’s safety record.
The spill occurred just before 10 p.m. Sunday when a locomotive and six cars of a Southern Pacific train jumped the tracks near a hairpin turn six miles north of Dunsmuir. Nearly 20,000 gallons of the chemical metam-sodium--a toxic pesticide used to sterilize soil before planting--flowed into the river from two holes punctured in a tanker car. No serious injuries to people were reported, although scores sought hospital treatment for nausea, dizziness and burning eyes.
The pesticide that spilled is not listed as a regulated substance by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Austin said. As a result, there was no federal requirement that the tanker car be labeled as containing a hazardous material, she said.
Pedri said the lack of labeling caused initial confusion about what was in the tanker and how best to handle the spill.
“It would be nice if there was a clearer understanding of what they were carrying to help us in times like this,” Pedri said.
As the extent of the damage became clearer Tuesday, reaction from state and federal lawmakers mounted. Rep. Wally Herger (R-Roseville) asked President Bush for help.
Several state legislators announced plans for a hearing Saturday in Redding to consider whether laws regarding the transportation of toxic materials should be strengthened.
Downstream, officials with water agencies whose supplies could be in jeopardy laid plans for testing and hunted for alternative sources. John Pedri, district engineer of the Shasta Dam Public Utility District, said, “If any contaminants were to reach our pumps, we would employ emergency measures . . . and make arrangements to acquire emergency water from other agencies.”
Residents along the river--hundreds of whom were evacuated Monday in the wake of the spill--were allowed to return to their homes Tuesday, only to be asked to pack up again. As the bitter smell of the chemical lingered and dead fish floated by, they voiced anger, confusion and fear that their water supply may be fouled.
“What makes me mad is they’re not damming it up,” said restaurant cook Melody Pemberton as she watched a dead fish pass down the bright green river near the community of Pollard Flat. “They should be damming it up and sucking it out.”
For many locals, the worst may lie ahead. Heavily reliant on the summer tourist and fishing industry for income, businesses in Dunsmuir and other small towns along the waterway face an uncertain future.
Local motel owners already were reporting cancellations as word of the spill spread, and travelers on Interstate 5 were still being stopped at checkpoints by state highway workers, who advised motorists to stay clear of the water, close their windows and not operate their air conditioners.
Wheeler, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency James Strock and Secretary of Health and Welfare Russ Gould were visibly shocked by the extent of the damage after a helicopter tour.
Strock said the stench was so bad that “you could smell it” from the air.
In addition to fish and aquatic insects, the chemical was killing plant life under water and possibly along the stream bank. Fishery experts called this disastrous.
“The riparian vegetation is extremely critical,” said May of California Trout. “It provides shade for the trout, it stabilizes the bank and it dumps woody debris into the water that is used by all kinds of organisms at the bottom of the food chain.”
Despite assurances from some state officials that metam-sodium has no long-term health effects on people, tests to evaluate the risks of exposure remain incomplete. Ralph E. Lightstone, a lobbyist for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said that studies of the pesticide are incomplete.
The tests are to determine whether the chemical might cause cancer, birth defects, or other long-term health problems.
“If you ask whether it might cause cancer or reproductive effects, the answer is, ‘We don’t know,’ ” Lightstone said.
Paddock reported from Dunsmuir, and Warren reported from Los Angeles. Researcher Michael Meyers also contributed to this story.
Path of the Plume
The 19,000-gallon chemical spill in the Sacramento River had moved to about 2 miles north of Lake Shasta by evening. Experts said the plume, 10 miles in length, was moving about half a mile an hour.