The following is the last of a three part series on the 1991 Cantara Loop spill near Dunsmuir
Several months after the Cantara spill, Bob Powers visited the river near Castle Crags with scientific intent. Not yet a Dunsmuir resident, Powers frequented Dunsmuir and was upset when he saw his favorite fishing spot featured on a Redding TV news report updating coverage of the chemical spill that killed all life in a 45-mile stretch of the Sacramento River.
He took along a camera and an index card bearing the date 11/16/91. He placed the card in the foreground for a dozen photographs of dead, brown grass and leaves along river's edge, along with shots of fresh sprouts of green, and rocks in the water spotted with algae.
Last week, Powers, who carries a Phi.D. in forest biology, shared the unique view that the spill had a beneficial effect. “Before the spill, the fish count was between 2,500 and 3,000,” he said, referring to mostly rainbow with some brown trout. “After, it peaked at around 5,000 for a brief time.”
He said that an overabundance of food first filled the void left in the river. This grew the fish population, which through natural depletion of food and the return of predators, soon dropped back to normal numbers. This whole process he viewed as a renewal of the river.
“It certainly cleaned out what we call non-game fish,” he said. “Though that was a heck of way to cleanse it!”
According a Cantara Trustee Council report, the spill was California's largest inland ecological disaster. The report states that about 19,000 gallons of metra sodium entered the river after a train derailment on the night of July 14, 1991.
Byproducts released in the water killed more than 300,000 trout, as well as millions of insects, snails and clams, and thousands of crayfish and salamanders.
The Cantara Trustee Council, established in 1995, was the committee set up to administer $14 million in Southern Pacific settlement funds. Seven people representing both government and private wildlife concerns issued grants for projects that would restore and sustain the Upper Sacramento River.
Southern Pacific's responsibility to provide for riparian restoration crystallized when the State of California filed suit nearly a year after the spill, joining plaintiffs Department of Fish and Game, Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, Air Resources Board, Department of Toxic Substances Control and Department of Health Services.
The railroad also faced many other settlements. Within a year of the spill, 37 Dunsmuir residents owning a total of 19 business filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit in Siskiyou County Superior Court. Another 700 citizens reported health problems.
Resident Naomi Croft claimed that exposure to fumes the night of the spill gave her asthma. She remembers attending numerous hearings, in town and in Redding. “I sued. I was in a group of thirteen in a lawsuit,” she said last week. She said that as part of the settlement she could not reveal the amount she eventually received.
Dunsmuir Hardware Store owner Ron McCloud said that he did not have to sue to recover damage to his business. “They visited every merchant in town,” he recalled last week. “We were able to demonstrate a total amount of loss to our business. We sat down and spent hours with accountants; it was not an easy thing.”
He said that his settlement took into account projected business loss in coming years. “The railroad dealt very decently with us,” he concluded. “They were very fair.”
The Upper Sacramento River running through Dunsmuir remained closed for three fishing seasons. “It was like someone had thrown a switch, and business was gone,” recalled McCloud. The little railroad town that depended on tourism endured, but not without some social repercussions. Mused McCloud, “The spill was kind of catalyst that brought other fears to the surface.”
Heightening tensions between those who sued and those who waived, tempers simmering over the city council's redevelopment agency, and with the city's plans to disband the police department in favor of law enforcement coverage by the sheriff, boiled over.
“Citizens for a Better Dunsmuir,” a community action group initially formed to coordinate claims against the railroad for those injured, launched a recall campaign against three members of the city council. The effort succeeded, with the election of November 1992 seeing the removal of councilors Julie Signor, Alan Smith and Mayor Virginia Barram.
Ultimately, the Cantara spill cost Southern Pacific $38 million, according to government documents.
Benefiting the future
Since then, the railroad has taken a number of steps to prevent an incident like this from ever happening again. Metra sodium, unknown and unlabeled in July 1991, is now recognized by warning tags on its containers. The physical stringing together of railroad cars is now regulated as to length, to ratio of empty to laden cars, and to cars' positions in the lineup.
Today, the Upper Sacramento River teems with life. Sportsmen from all over the world visit Dunsmuir to whip a fly rod across its waters. While in town, they look around, shop, eat, need a place to stay. They go home and tell their friends about the little historic railroad town, and those friends show up the next year.
New residents to Dunsmuir can go years without hearing mention of the Cantara spill. The money is gone, the toxin aerated to nothing over Lake Shasta 20 years ago. There remain, however, three monuments that can turn conversation to the night the river died.
One is the under-the-freeway park known as Tauridian. Once a refuse heap for construction waste, it was transformed into landscaped fishing access with a nature trail by the Dunsmuir Garden Club with a grant from the Cantara Trustee Council.
Another monument stands over the site of the derailment, alongside the tight curve of track bridging the river. It is a massive guard rail, a complex of heavy steel pipes with diameters wider than most people. Dedicated by Union Pacific in 2001, it stands as a barrier to any large thing that might tumble down that steep embankment toward the water.
The third is the River Exchange, another project funded by a grant from the Cantara Trustee Council. Its vision, as printed in its first newsletter, spring 1997, hopes that future generations will inherit a greater understanding of local watersheds, and foster a greater desire to maintain them.
To this end, the River Exchange has organized a number of educational projects, working with local schools in riparian wildlife awareness, nature walks and an annual river cleanup. On a more scientific note, it compiles data on land use in the region to watch over the health of the watershed and to share what is learned with others all over the county.
• Research for this article included articles from Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers archives, interviews with railroad workers, and personal observations as a volunteer for the Dunsmuir Chamber of Commerce.