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This July 15, 1991, Sacramento Bee photo shows an aerial view of South Pacific railroad tracks near Dunsmuir, Calif., Where a derailment overturned rail cars carrying a highly toxic chemical in the Sacramento River. The chemical, a weedkiller, destroyed all vegetation and life forms downstream to Shasta Reservoir. A train derailed near the site on Friday but there was no chemical spill.

Sacramento Bee archive photo

Twenty cars derailed on Friday afternoon near the site of a railway chemical spill 30 years ago that killed miles of a pristine northern California river in what has become one of the world’s worst disasters ecological aspects of state history.

This time, none of the northbound cars that derailed in Siskiyou County spilled any chemicals, said Union Pacific Railway spokeswoman Susan Stevens. No one was injured, Stevens said, and the cause of the derailment is still under investigation.

The California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife’s spill prevention and response office confirmed on Saturday that nothing had spilled into the Sacramento River.

The derailment comes a month after the 30th anniversary of one of the most horrific chemical spills in state history.

On July 14, 1991, a South Pacific train crossed a hairpin bend spanning the headwaters of the Sacramento River at Cantara Loop north of the small town of Dunsmuir in Siskiyou County.

An oil tanker that tumbled into the river released 19,500 gallons of herbicide that turned the water neon green and killed all aquatic life more than 40 miles downstream from Shasta Lake.

An estimated 1.1 million fish have died from the chemical, a pesticide called metam-sodium. Witnesses reported seeing trout jumping from the river on its banks to escape the deadly green plume.

Residents and railway workers who responded to the crash said they suffered breathing problems and other health problems from inhaling the fumes. A flurry of personal injury lawsuits ensued, with many plaintiffs ultimately receiving checks of up to $ 100,000.

“The idea that you could chemically sterilize a river all the way to Lake Shasta, it really hit the small town of Dunsmuir really hard,” said Peter Arth, a city councilor who has served as California’s senior lawyer. Public Utilities Commission as the state fought the railroad company.

After the spill, clean-up effort on the Upper Sacramento River

In 1994, the state of California agreed to a $ 38 million settlement with Southern Pacific and the owners of the tank car and the chemical company. Union Pacific acquired Southern Pacific in 1996.

The railway company spent more than $ 10 million to improve the tracks in the upper Sacramento River Canyon and took other safety measures to prevent future derailments, such as reducing speed, different loading. trains and the construction of heavy guardrails along key bends to prevent train cars from entering the river.

Remarkably, it only took a few years for aquatic life to return to the river, and Upper Sacramento is once again considered a prime stream for trout fishing.

Siskiyou County Supervisor Ed Valenzuela said so many new residents have moved to Dunsmuir that few now remember the severity of the spill and its impact on the community. The river runs through the city and is a key driver of the region’s tourist economy.

Between the wildfires and the pandemic threatening Siskiyou County, Valenzuela said he was happy to hear the derailment was no worse.

“With everything going on, it’s like, oh my God, this is the last thing we need, it’s a spill,” he said.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general and business news, and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western Newspapers. Prior to joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter for The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.

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