In 1991, fear and uncertainty gripped the little town of Dunsmuir, known throughout the world as a prime fly fishing destination. Townsfolk gathered and shared fears over what happens next following a train derailment that poured a toxic substance into the Sacramento River. They feared for their health, their local economy, and wondered for how long Dunsmuir might just have to shut down.The following is part two of a three-part series detailing the 1991 Cantara spill on its 20 year anniversary.
The following is part two of a three-part series detailing the 1991 Cantara spill near Dunsmuir
On the morning of July 15, 1991 Janet Norton answered a knock on her door. She lived in one of a complex of cabins standing beside the river about a half mile south of the Dunsmuir railyard. When she opened her door she was told she must leave her home, and right now.
“Before I left, I looked between the cabins, down the driveway, and there was a big, thick green fog,” she recalled from her desk at Better Homes Realty Friday.
She said that she saw this green mist drifting over the ground no more than 30 feet away. Fear seized her. She was afraid not only for herself and her 2 year old son indoors, but also for the unborn child she carried, just past its most-vulnerable first trimester.
Norton was one of many who were awakened that morning by volunteers bearing news of a Southern Pacific train derailment that dropped a tank car into the river upstream of town. Its contents, a soil fumigant called metham sodium, escaped the tanker and mixed with river’s water.
According to a government report found online, when metham sodium mixes with water, it breaks down quickly into several byproducts, including methylisothiocyanate (MITC), methylamine and hydrogen sulfide, which are released as a gases.
Some of those byproducts remained in the river and flowed with it to Dunsmuir.
Based on excerpts from Train Derailments and Toxic Spills: A Hearing before the Committee on Government Operations of the House of Representatives, Oct. 3, 1991, the report on the spill continued, “The waterborne plume moved down it. We observed that virtually all of the plants and animals in the river were killed instantly – fish, algae, plankton, insects and other organisms. It literally sterilized the stream.”
For the rest of that year, fear and uncertainty gripped the little town known throughout the world as a prime fly fishing destination. Townsfolk gathered and shared fears over what happens next. They feared for their health, their local economy, and wondered for how long Dunsmuir might just have to shut down.
Minister Dale Farnsworth remembers, “There were guys in gas masks running around. In the following days, it was the all the same fearmongers saying, ‘They destroyed the river! It’ll never be the same! It’ll be dead 20 years!’”
Hardware store owner Ron McCloud recalled, “Bhopal was mentioned several times.” In 1984, a pesticide plant in that India city leaked toxic chemicals that initially killed nearly 2,300 people.
Outside city limits, the media fanned fear into hysteria.
Then-mayor Virginia Barham remembers the press hounding her on the street and at her home. “There were TV reporters in my yard,” she said. “I had all these positive things to say, and I turn on the TV and see myself saying, ‘I don’t think Dunsmuir will ever recover.’ They took it out of context.”
She stated that it got so crazy the Alhambra Water Company sent a truck up with an emergency supply of bottled water. “We had to tell them we don’t get our drinking water from the river,” she said.
Three months later, Norton visited her doctor for a routine prenatal checkup. He said that her baby was healthy and developing normally. Still, she worried.
Meanwhile the town had split into to camps. One, represented publicly by Barham, saw it as a non-event. “If it hadn’t been Southern Pacific and the dollars involved, it would have been nothing,” she said.
On the other side, people reported worsening symptoms for pre-existing conditions, especially respiratory. Many claimed new injury from exposure to the poisonous chemical.
“I never had asthma before that night, but I have it now,” said Naomi Croft, referring to when she stepped outside into what she called, “like, lime green.”
People filled meeting halls, such as city council meeting, or any of a number of hearings held in the community building or the elementary school. They complained of burning eyes, headaches, nausea and skin rashes. After they learn more about metham sodium, they worried about birth defects.
These people felt that Southern Pacific owed them.
Barham said that within two days of the spill, Dunsmuir saw the appearance of celebrity attorney Melvin Belli, with clipboard-toting helpers to collect names for a class action suit. About the same time, Southern Pacific set up on office in the lobby in the Traveler’s Hotel, where those affected by the spill could apply for compensation.
By the end of the destroyed tourist season of 1991, the surface turmoil in town had subsided, but strong currents still swirled beneath.
The river was to be closed for no one knew how long, a direct threat to Dunsmuir’s economy. Voices were raised for the recall of councilors Barham, Julie Signor and Alan Smith. The town grapevine trembled with worry over long-term health effects.
A few weeks after New Year’s 1992, Norton gave birth to a baby boy. “He was healthy!” she cried. “I counted all his fingers and toes! They were all there!”
Next week: Settlement and sustainability.