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From our archives: Cantara Loop spill was 29 years ago

Skye Kinkade
In this photo from the July 17, 1991 edition of the Dunsmuir News, Southern Pacific crews worked to clear tracks of seven cars and an engine that infamously 
derailed days before, spilling thousands of gallons of a weed killer into the Sacramento River. The white tanker that leaked Vapam is shown lying upside down in the water underneath the trestle.

Tuesday marked 29 years since the infamous Cantara Loop Spill – a train accident that led to the spillage of thousands of gallons of herbicide into the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir.

More than 19,000 gallons of a soil sterilizer and weed killer called Vapam was leaked into the river on the evening of July 14, 1991, killing fish and vegetation and sickening hundreds of people in the Dunsmuir and Sweetbriar area.

Work to rehabilitate the river went on for 12 years. Ultimately, more than a million fish and tens of thousands of amphibians and crayfish were killed by the spill. Millions of aquatic invertebrates including insects and mollusks were lost, according to the final report penned by the Cantara Trustee Council, which was formed to address restoration, land acquisition and protection, research and public education. In addition, hundreds of thousands of willows, alders, and cottonwoods eventually died.

“The chemical plume left a 41-mile wake of destruction, from the spill site to the entry point of the river into Shasta Lake,” the final report states.

In a Facebook post Tuesday morning, Shasta Regional Community Foundation pointed out that funds set aside to mitigate the spill established and forever benefit Dunsmuir’s Tauhindauli Park.

Donations are accepted at the Tauhindauli Park Endowment Fund https://www.shastarcf.org/funds/tauhindauli-park-endowment-fund to support Dunsmuir Recreation and Parks District's park maintenance.

The initial horror of the spill was captured in the July 17, 1991 issue of the Dunsmuir News in a story written by reporter Jenny Coyle, titled “Train spill poisons river.”

That story has been reprinted here.

By Jenny Coyle

Thousands of fish floated dead on the water and canyon residents fled their homes after a derailed Southern Pacific tank car leaked 19,500 gallons of toxic weed killer into the Sacramento River Sunday night.

Several hundred people felt the effects of the spill with burning eyes, headaches and nausea and many were treated at the hospital and doctor’s offices.

It was 10:30 p.m. when one engine and seven cars on a northbound Southern Pacific train flipped off the Cantara trestle, sending a tanker full of potent pesticide into the middle of the river, where it landed upside down.

It took officials more than two hours to determine the exact contents of the unmarked tanker, and another four hours for an SP hazardous materials team to arrive from Portland and determine that some of the pesticide had leaked into the river.

Estimates at 5 a.m. Monday were that some 200 gallons of Vapam, a soil sterilizer and weed eater, had spilled directly into the river, and volunteers were mobilized to notify anglers, campers, and downriver residents that the water was unsafe.

But by 11 a.m., the same hazardous materials team emerged from the river after testing the level of liquid in the tanker, and soberly informed Department of Fish and Game officials that a full 19,500 gallons of the pesticide had leaked out.

Meantime, riverside residents of Dunsmuir, Castella, and Sweetbrier began noticing the effects of the chemical that caused a slight sheen and light green tint on the water that ran past their homes.

Dead fish began rising to the surface of the water, and residents noticed that their own eyes were burning, they felt nauseous, had headaches, and were weak.

Members of volunteer fire departments delivered fliers to homes and campsites along the river, warning them of the spill and urging them to leave the area if they experienced any symptoms of exposure.

The Dunsmuir High School gym, set up with cots and food as refuge for river dwellers who wanted to flee their homes, saw nearly 200 people come through between Monday and Tuesday, with two dozen of them opting to spend the night there.

Sally McArdle, a spokesperson at Mercy Medical Center in Mount Shasta said 32 people went through the emergency room on Monday.

Of those, one was admitted overnight for vomiting, severe cramps, and a headache. Another 14 were treated for less severe symptoms – including a rash in several cases – and 18 were checked over and sent home, Ms. McArdle said.

Area physicians also treated patients with symptoms, she said, though exact figures were not available.

Interstate 5 was closed for part of Monday from Highway 89 to Redding, with traffic being diverted to Burney. When the freeway was reopened that evening, motorists were warned to keep their windows rolled up, and to avoid leaving the roadway from Redding to Mount Shasta.

A California Highway Patrol helicopter monitored the spill as it worked its way down the canyon in a poisonous plume, bringing with it a sulfur-type smell as it reached Sweetbrier by 1 p.m.

The plume was expected to have reached Shasta Lake by early Tuesday afternoon.

Jane Carey, working at an interagency information center in Redding, said that officials expect the pesticide to sink into the cooler waters at the Shasta Arm of the lake.

Campgrounds in that area have been closed, she said, and boats were cleared from the area early in the morning.

“It’s expected that the chemical will properly disseminate in the lake, but they’ll continue to test it to be sure,” Ms. Carey said.

CH2M Hill in Redding and OH Materials out of Ohio have been contracted by Southern Pacific to test the water and monitor the spill, and assist in a clean-up plan.

Al Matthews, Department of Fish and Game warden, said “we’re hoping for the best” where impacts to the river are concerned.

However, native and stock trout killed in the spill will be hard to replace.

“People come from a long way away to fish the Sacramento,” Matthews said. “It was one of the real good ones.”

He said that the best information available on Tuesday - from a toxicologist in San Francisco – indicates that chances for secondary poisoning are low. In other words, a mammal eating fish killed during the spill will not likely be killed in turn.

The train that derailed, heading from the Los Angeles area to Eugene, Ore., consisted of four engines pulling 97 cars, only 11 of which were loaded, according to Bob Melbo, SP superintendent out of Portland.

The cars that derailed were at the front of the train, and the cause could be “stringlining,” an effect where the train tried to straighten out as it rounded the 14-degree curve at Cantara trestle, Melbo said.

A “helper,” an engine that pushes the train from the back, is not required on trains weighing up to 4,500 tons, he said. The train that derailed weighed 4,294 tons.

“It all falls within the normal requirements to prevent too aggressive pulling,” Melbo said.

An official from the National Transportation Safety Board was in the area Monday to begin an investigation of the cause of the accident.

Matthews with Fish and Game said that when the derailment was first reported and agencies met at the site, SP officials said the liquid in the toppled tanker “was water soluble, non-flammable, and non toxic.”

There was no placard on the tanker, he said, to indicate that it was toxic. About an hour later, SP provided information that the substance was toxic after all.

Gordon Travis, a trainmaster based in Medford, said the pesticide in the tanker – Alco Metam Sodium – is not “a regulated commodity” with the Federal Railroad Administration or the Department of Transportation.

Hazardous materials that are transported on the rails must be marked with a placard, and the engineer keeps a manifest, or detailed description of the substance.

Because Metam Sodium is not regulated, it was not in a marked tanker, and there was no manifest on hand, Travis said.

The delay in identifying the substance Sunday night occurred because railroad officials had to contact the shipper to learn what the tanker contained.

Then, when the SP hazardous materials team arrived from Portland, they determined by 5 a.m. that 1,000 gallons of the pesticide had leaked through three-inch hole. They said 200 gallons had gone in the river.

It wasn’t until six hours later that they ruled the entire contents of the tanker had spilled.