Town Revives as Reopened River Draws Anglers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bearing cash and spreading joy, anglers returned to this beleaguered town Saturday for the first time since a disastrous 1991 pesticide spill killed more than 1 million fish and devastated the local economy.

In a surprisingly rapid comeback, the Upper Sacramento River ecosystem has recovered well enough to support a population of native and hatchery trout, drawing anglers from all over Northern California and giving motel owners the first chance in ages to use their "No Vacancy" signs.

"I love it. This is great," said Charles Davis, an unemployed tree pruner from Dunsmuir shortly before he caught three rainbow trout. "This is going to help this town tremendously."

Dunsmuir has struggled to survive since July, 1991, when a Southern Pacific train derailed and dumped 19,000 gallons of the pesticide metam sodium into the river just north of town. The spill killed virtually everything in the river for 40 miles downstream and sent a cloud of toxic fumes through Dunsmuir that sickened some residents.

Recently, a state study found that more environmental damage was sustained than thought--including the discovery that many more fish died than biologists first believed. Scientists also say three previously undiscovered species of small snail were rendered extinct by the spill.

Although the railroad has agreed to pay $40 million to the state and $14.5 million to spill victims, many town residents remain embittered by the disaster. They worry that the poison may cause lingering health problems. They fear that their businesses may not survive. And they are angry over what they perceive as a lack of fair compensation from Southern Pacific.

"The last 2 1/2 years have been a very difficult period of time for community life in Dunsmuir," City Manager Alan Harvey said. "We are looking forward to this season as a rebirth, a new beginning, a chance to enjoy what the Upper Sacramento can mean for the community."

Although the river is still many years from complete recovery, the state Department of Fish and Game concluded that reopening the waterway to limited fishing would not seriously hamper the continued revival of the ecosystem.

On the first day of the season, most anglers headed to a six-mile stretch of river where about 2,000 hatchery trout had been planted earlier in the week. They were allowed to catch and keep up to five fish a day--planters or native rainbow trout.

Along the rest of the damaged river, anglers were permitted to fish for prized native trout, but were required to throw back anything they caught. Anglers along the entire 40 miles of river were required to use barbless hooks to reduce the risk of injury to native fish that escaped or were released.

Despite the restrictions, anglers who have long favored the area heralded the reopening of the river, which draws the casual fisherman because of the easy access and fly fishers because of the native trout. Local proprietors estimated that hundreds of fishers showed up for the reopening Saturday.

"It will be wonderful for the town," said 74-year-old Ed Hiatt of Woodland, who has been coming here to fish since the 1920s. "They practically died without the tourism."

The Department of Fish and Game expects to plant about 27,000 hatchery fish in the river this season. Most of them are not as hardy as the native trout and will be caught by anglers or perish during the winter. The hatchery fish are unlikely to dilute the genetic stock of native trout.

"We are pleased that less than three years after the accident, things are getting back much nearer to normal than they have been," Southern Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney said.

The native trout appear to be making a strong comeback, as survivors have moved in from tributary streams and the river above the spill site. Fish and Game biologists estimate there are now about 1,250 natives per mile and predict that will quadruple to 5,000 per mile in the next two years.

Before the spill, biologists estimate that the river contained more than 300,000 trout--about 7,500 per mile--along with more than 750,000 riffle sculpin and other kinds of fish. Until the recent completion of a detailed fish count that included tallying frozen fish carcasses, officials had pegged the fish kill at hundreds of thousands. The scientists now say their estimate of more than 1 million fish killed is conservative.

The study also found that the spill took a heavy toll on terrestrial species, killing 30% of the birds and mammals near the river, 4,000 giant salamanders and hundreds of mature trees. The three species of snails discovered extinct were among 27 kinds of mollusks now known to have inhabited the river before the spill.

"There were three species previously unknown to science that were destroyed," said Fish and Game biologist Mark Stopher, who headed the damage assessment team. "They don't even have names. We found them from the shells left in the river."

Unlike the trout, species such as mollusks, sculpin and crayfish are making a slow comeback largely because they are less mobile. Part of the settlement money may be spent to transplant these species from other rivers.

Jerry Cantrell used to enjoy fishing in the river a few blocks from his home, but now, at age 46, he said he is totally disabled from exposure to the pesticide cloud.

The former energy consultant said he also has lost much of his lung function, has had four operations to repair intestinal damage and cannot remain out of bed for more than a few hours a day. His son, Mark, 17, also suffered lung damage from the fumes, he said.

"There are a lot of people very bitter about it," he said.

The state Department of Health Services conducted a door-to-door survey nine months after the spill and found that people exposed to the poison reported a higher incidence of mood changes, vision changes and diarrhea than people who were out of town at the time.

But state medical experts said they could not determine whether the metam sodium has caused long-term health effects. The state is not attempting to monitor victims of the spill and has no record of how many people were affected or how many remain ill.

"For investigators to determine that a particular exposure in a complex environment is responsible is a very hard thing to do," said Rick Kreutzer of the Department of Health Services.

It is easier, perhaps, to see the social effects of the disaster. Former Mayor Virginia Barham was recalled by the town's voters, along with two City Council members, amid charges that they were insensitive to victims of the spill. The former city manager, who had suggested that some residents were falsely claiming to be ill so they could collect from Southern Pacific, resigned after the recall.

Now, many of the 3,000 people who filed claims against the railroad are concerned that the $14.5-million settlement will fall far short of paying for their actual damages. Once attorneys' fees and legal costs are deducted, the settlement works out to about $3,000 a person.

"They paid the state more than they paid us, which means the fish are worth more than the community's health," said Cantrell, the ailing energy consultant. "First we were victimized by Southern Pacific and now by the court system."

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