Cleanup of more than a century's worth of fuel leakage to begin in Dunsmuir next week

Staff reports

An effort to clean up more than 100 years worth of fuel leaked from historic tanks at Dunsmuir's Union Pacific Railroad facility was prompted by a citizen who in 2018 reported oil in the Sacramento River.

State and federal agencies will work together with Union Pacific starting next week to remove contamination caused by leaking fuel tanks first installed in the early 1900s. Union Pacific is responsible for the costs to stop fuel from seeping into the soil, groundwater and the Upper Sacramento River and to clean up the contaminated area.

At the turn of the last century, the Dunsmuir facility (then operated by the Southern Pacific Transportation Company), was equipped with a steel tank with a capacity of 2.1 million gallons, according to a press release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. The tank at that time held Bunker C fuel to power steam locomotives before it was replaced by a 200,000-gallon diesel tank in 1955.

Railroad enthusiasts and citizens of Dunsmuir came to the ribbon cutting ceremony and dedication of the Dunsmuir 1727 Locomotive on Saturday morning, kicking off the start of Dunsmuir Railroad Days.

Unknown amounts of both fuels have seeped into the soil, groundwater and the Upper Sacramento River for about 120 years.

Many attempts have been made over the last century to stop contamination into the river, the agencies reported. Initial efforts in the early 1920s included construction of a 700-foot retaining wall and oil sump, or pan, to contain the chemicals. In the decades that followed, more retaining walls, a skimmer system, and intercept trenches were built, as well as groundwater extraction and treatment systems, monitoring wells, and oil collection wells.

The property was purchased from Southern Pacific by Union Pacific Railroad in 1996. In the years that followed, Union Pacific transitioned away from fuel storage and fueling operations at the site, according to the release. By 2003, most of these activities had ceased.

Union Pacific's installation of containment booms in the river and a barrier were ineffective to stop the chemicals from seeping into the water, however.

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a Cleanup and Abatement Order and the EPA issued a Clean Water Act Order to Union Pacific Railroad, requiring action to remove the discharge or to "mitigate or prevent the substantial threat of a discharge of oil," according to the press release.

There have been no impacts to wildlife, according to the CDFW, which has monitored the waterway, and the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, after assessing the river, recommended the fishery remain open.

Members of the public are encouraged to avoid the area during cleanup operations, as there will be containment booms and other apparatus in place, according to the release.

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation, lifelong Siskiyou County resident.