Moved by memories of Cantara Loop spill, Dunsmuir company aids Ohio town after derailment

Jessica Skropanic
Redding Record Searchlight
Desiree Cowan of Dunsmuir moves a pallet of bag-in-box Castle Rock water in preparation for it to be sent to the people of East Palestine, Ohio.

Dunsmuir is reaching out to help residents in East Palestine, Ohio after the devastating chemical spill caused by a train derailment on Feb. 3.

The Castle Rock Water Company in Dunsmuir plans to send a truckload of water to the community, where cleanup efforts of hazardous waste from the Norfolk Southern spill are ongoing.

More than a simple act of charity, gifting clean water is symbolic of Dunsmuir's resilience after it weathered a similar ordeal more than 30 years ago. It was in 1991 when a Southern Pacific train derailed at the Cantara Loop and spilled toxic materials that poisoned the Sacramento River from Dunsmuir to Shasta Lake.

“We’re sending 26 pallets of water ― bottles and bag-in-box ― by trailer truck," Castle Rock Water owner Kit Marshall said. Each pallet weighs about 780 pounds.

Pallets of bottled water is ready to be loaded on a truck for delivery to the people of East Palestine, Ohio.

Uber Freight donated the truck to carry water on its 2,500-mile trip from Siskiyou County to East Palestine near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, Siskiyou County Economic Development Council spokesperson Kory Hayden said.

“Castle Rock Water is estimating a March 6 sendoff date,” Hayden said, after winter storms made road travel impossible the week of Feb. 27.

“The people of East Palestine are so excited we’re sending this water,” said Marshall, who contacted nonprofit the Way Station about sending "fresh cleansing water" to the town's residents.

The nonprofit is distributing emergency assistance and other aid to Ohioans affected by the spill, according to Way Station Executive Director Chaney Nezbeth.

Dunsmuir, a historical town with a population of 1,710, feels a certain kinship with East Palestine (population of 4,718), Hayden said. Both are small railroad towns.

Dunsmuir residents know how it feels to have their home threatened by a chemical disaster, said Hayden, 43, who was in middle school in Etna when Dunsmuir faced its own toxic disaster.

Sisters Casidee Berrigan, 13, left, and Ray Lynn Berrigan, 10,  hold up a poster they made for the people of East Palestine, Ohio from the Dunsmuir Elementary School basketball team. The poster will accompany 26 pallets of water donated by Castle Rock Water in Dunsmuir to Ohioans affected by the toxic spill from a train derailment on Feb. 3, 2023.

On July 14, 1991, freight cars overturned along the Cantara Loop near Dunsmuir, dumping more than 19,000 gallons of metam sodium into the Sacramento River. The herbicide flowed more than 40 miles south into Lake Shasta, killing millions of animals along the way. It also made Dunsmuir residents ill.

It took 12 years to rehabilitate the river, according to a report from the Cantara Trustee Council, formed to address restoration and public education. The spill killed more than a million fish, tens of thousands of amphibians and crayfish, millions of aquatic invertebrates including insects and mollusks, and hundreds of thousands of willow, alder and cottonwood trees.

Dunsmuir residents have “painful memories” of that disaster, the repercussions of which long outlasted public attention after the spill, Marshall said. “We’re going to put a big banner on the back of the truck that says, ‘From Dunsmuir, California to East Palestine, Ohio: We have not forgotten you’ with the seal of the city of Dunsmuir."

East Palestine’s disaster brought national interest to disaster management and the way trains transport hazardous materials, Hayden said. News organizations “are revisiting the nation’s most serious environmental accidents due to train derailments,” including the Cantara Loop disaster.

Jessica Skropanic is a features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers science, arts, social issues and entertainment stories. Follow her on Twitter@RS_JSkropanic and onFacebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work,please subscribe today. Thank you.