No one wants to relive the 1991 Cantara Loop Spill. But, if such an emergency were to happen again, first responders will have a better idea of what to expect after last week’s Upper Sacramento River Hazardous Materials training drill.

No one wants to relive the 1991 Cantara Loop Spill. But, if such an emergency were to happen again, first responders will have a better idea of what to expect after last week’s Upper Sacramento River Hazardous Materials training drill.

The scenario was this: a train carrying bakken crude oil has derailed at Cantara Loop, hitting a truck packed with people and fertilizers for an illegal marijuana grow, spilling both hazardous cargoes into the river.

The improvised 911 call came in at about 9:15 on Wednesday morning, alerting first responders to the scene, said Andrea Capps, interpretive specialist for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

To simulate the oil and fertilizer’s flow downriver, kayakers and tubers were launched from the crash site, she explained.

Local medical personnel and the Shasta Cascade Hazardous Materials Response Team triaged the truck and train passengers, who were actors portraying sets of specified injuries and symptoms. They decontaminated them and saved who they could, said CAL FIRE Public Information Officer Cheryl Buliavac.

The Dunsmuir/Castella Fire Department rushed to deploy booms at a slow-moving spot of the river at Tauhindauli Park, designed to contain the spread of the hazardous spillage.

In the case of an actual spill, absorbent pads would be used in the river, said Dunsmuir/Castella Fire Department Chief Dan Padilla. Other types of booms, capable of capturing petroleum-based substances that are heavier than the water, would be deployed.

Placement of the booms is important, because after the hazardous materials are contained, a vac truck would be used to suck the contaminants out of the water, said Dale Stultz from the state’s Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

He said the booms need to be placed in slow moving water, in a location where a vacuum truck can be positioned nearby. Tauhindauli Park, under the 800 foot bridge in Dunsmuir, is an ideal spot.

An incident command center was set up at Mount Shasta’s Evangelical Free Church, and the American Red Cross evacuated affected residents to the safety of a shelter at Dunsmuir Elementary School.

A California Highway Patrol helicopter transported a chem pack to Incident Command from Siskiyou County Health Department in Yreka. The pack includes antidotes for those exposed to hazardous materials – in this case, atropine.

After the helicopter landed at the church, Siskiyou County Sheriff Sgt. Chris Rees delivered the chem pack to the accident site at Cantara Loop.

From Incident Command, the local technology company FireWhat provided live GIS feeds of the kayakers and intertubers.

Improving the system

The point of the exercise, said Alexia Retallack, spokesperson for the California Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, is to identify weak points in the system so responders can make improvements in the future.

If such a spill were to actually occur, there are plans in place for Union Pacific to notify local responders, who would then contact county, state and federal organizations. Assessments would occur to determine exactly what action is needed, said Retallack. Response would be multifaceted from many different agencies working as one.

More crude oil on the tracks

Transporting crude oil by rail throughout the country and into California and west coast refineries has been on the rise because of increased oil production in the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, according to a press release from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Retallack said the rail that slices through Siskiyou County is one of three main routes crude oil takes.

The rapid change has resulted in an increase in the number of catastrophic railroad derailments and explosions in the past three years, according to the release.

Rick Dean, Hazardous Materials Unit Manager for Siskiyou County, said bakken crude isn’t generally shipped to California. The oil that comes through Dunsmuir isn’t bakken, or “sweet crude,” which is more volatile, but instead the typical tarlike crude from Canada.

“California refineries don’t deal with bakken crude because they currently can’t refine it. But they are gearing up to do that in the future,” said Dean.

The California Energy Commission reports that the volume of crude oil imported to the state by rail has gone from 45,491 barrels in 2009 to nearly 6.2 million barrels in 2013 – a 135-fold increase in four years. Nationally, crude oil traveling by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“Spills do happen, and we are preparing for that,” said Retallack.

Lessons learned

Witnessing last week’s drill were Dunsmuir Mayor Dave Keisler and District 2 Supervisor Ed Valenzuela, among others.

Valenzuela said the drill was important because it gave all the different agencies, from local to federal, a chance to work together. The simulated emergency gave them a trial run to work out any glitches before a real response is needed.

Based on the material that is leaked and water levels, it was expected that the chemicals would take only an hour and a half to two and a half hours to reach Tauhindauli Park.

That would be the case if water flows were typical, at about 250 cubic feet per second, said Dean.

However, due to low water levels of 40 to 42 cubic feet per second, it took kayakers about four hours to reach the park from the spill site he said.

The kayakers had to navigate exposed rocks and other obstacles present due to the lower flows. One kayaker suffered a minor laceration above his left eyebrow that had to be stitched, said Dean.

Overall, Dean said much was learned through the drill and it helped develop an overall awareness for the dangers of toxic chemicals.