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Plumas Co. Grand Jury: Scathing indictment of hazardous material transportation through Feather River Canyon

Repost from Plumas County News
[Editor:  This Grand Jury report is thorough and well written – an excellent resource and alarming in its analysis.  Its findings and recommendations (near the end of the report) might be a valuable resource for communities everywhere.  There are a number of references to “after-action reports.”   Question for our research: how can concerned citizens obtain such reports?  – RS]

Hazardous material transportation a roulette wheel for potential disaster

Feather Publishing

6/5/2015

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of midterm reports submitted by the 2014-15 Plumas County Civil Grand Jury.

SUMMARY
Early in the morning Nov. 25, 2014, a Union Pacific freight train derailed in the Feather River Canyon just east of Belden, sending 11 railcars full of corn off the tracks and down the steep embankment. In a press statement shortly afterward, a State Office of Emergency Services official was quoted as saying, “We dodged a bullet” because the train was only carrying corn.

Based on a rash of recent derailments and spills of hazardous materials happening throughout the United States and Canada, “a bullet” in fact grossly underestimates the potential devastation, magnitude and scope of the consequences left from these horrific incidents. Luckily, it was only corn that spilled. With the recent surge in crude-by-rail domestic crude oil transports between oil fields in North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania and Bay Area refineries through the Feather River Canyon, the aftermath could have wrought far-reaching disaster had it been the high-flammable Bakken crude in the tanker cars.

According to sources, the number of crude-by-rail trains passing through the Feather River Canyon has tripled in number within the past three years. With developments in hydraulic fracking technology coming about in domestic oil fields, the petroleum market has seen a profound shift from importing foreign oil to extracting it in domestic oil fields in the United States. As a result, thousands of jobs have been created and oil prices have plummeted since this recent boon in domestic oil production. In addition, other hazardous chemicals are transported throughout the United States by rail and by truck. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, only the railroads are required to know what’s in the cars they’re shipping.

The grand jury found it extremely important to examine the recent corn derailment other recent crude-by-rail disasters in the U.S. and Canada to determine whether Plumas County agencies and private transportation operators are adequately prepared in “worst-case” scenarios. In respect to the Plumas County corn derailment, because the corn was relatively harmless and could be immediately dealt with without invoking hazardous material protocols, local, state and railroad officials and crews did an excellent job in containment of the spill and clearing and repairing the tracks within the impact area.

As a result of a quick and well-coordinated response, the Feather River Canyon rail route was restored and passing rail traffic three days after the initial derailment. Nonetheless, the grand jury has found the incident to be a practical review for a county hazardous material spill and useful opportunity to compare and contrast the corn spill with other recent more disastrous spills. Plumas County did indeed “dodge the bullet,” and from this incident the grand jury believes it will provide valuable findings and recommendations which may in turn act as a catalyst and cast fresh perspectives and insights on dealing with future potential spills and hazardous material disasters.

BACKGROUND
In review of the Feather River Canyon corn spill Nov. 25, 2014, a total of 11 cars full of raw corn derailed and spilled down a steep embankment near Rich Bar. Luckily, the spill was only tons of kernels and husks, and the incident proved to have had only a minimal impact, environmentally speaking.

The corn spill turned out to be good opportunity to test the Plumas County emergency response system. The incident was first reported by Union Pacific Railroad Dispatch in Omaha, Nebraska, to the Plumas County Warning Center, stating, “12 rail cars close to Rich Bar at Hwy 70 MPM 265 on the Canyon Sub,” and that “12 rail cars loaded with grain derailed, it is unknown whether the cars are upright or on their sides, and that the derailment occurred in a canyon next to a stream or river and it is unknown at this time if the waterway was impacted.”

According to the after-action report on the incident, the State Warning Center notification included the Plumas County sheriff, California Highway Patrol, Plumas County Environmental Health, State Water Quality Board, State Department of Toxics, State Drinking Water, Cal Office of Emergency Services, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The accident occurred around 3 a.m. Nov. 25. By 8 a.m. Union Pacific had placed containment booms 100 feet down the Feather River. Fortunately, none of the cars landed in the river and only a small amount of corn spilled into the river.

One of the important facts that should be emphasized here concerns containment supplies and where they are located. It took roughly five hours for the railroad to have containment booms in place. According the Plumas County officials, Union Pacific does not have any spill containment kits in Plumas County. A formal request from the grand jury was emailed to Union Pacific safety representatives asking about the whereabouts of containment kits — according to their response (the grand jury received a very quick email reply that day), Chico, Roseville and Reno, Nevada, were the closest railroad facilities that had emergency containment kits.

Other revelations from the after-action report revealed that the Union Pacific Railroad Dispatch Center could not pinpoint the exact location in the Feather River Canyon to the Warning Center. In addition, dispatch was not “forthcoming” on what was spilled, although the center did state that the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department was notified that “there were no injuries, no hazardous materials released, and that no assistance was needed.” The corn spill after-action report in its conclusion posted its “corrective actions from railroad incident” review. Some of the recommendations are summarized here:

—Push Union Pacific dispatch for better initial report information.

—Use GPS to pinpoint incident location.

—Coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for any incident in the Feather River Canyon.

—The incident commander for any hazardous materials incident is designated as the primary law enforcement authority.

—Follow Plumas County Hazardous Materials Response Plan.

—The Office of Emergency Services will try to find a local Union Pacific dispatch contact person.

Evidently, the cause of the corn derailment was a section of the railroad track breaking or separating. Ironically, Union Pacific reported that all railroad ties along the Feather River Canyon were replaced in 2013. Union Pacific conducts track inspections at regular intervals and reportedly it conducts Feather River Canyon inspections every three months. Nonetheless, the corn derailment exemplifies that rail accidents can happen at any time.

In respect to the other crude-by-rail spills, the same results were concluded. Train speed was not a factor and rail and bridge inspections were documented before the incidents occurred. The crude-by-rail derailments were all on relatively flat landscapes. The Feather River Canyon route, with its rocky and unstable terrain, is much more prone to outside factors that can lead to derailments.

According to 2013 Plumas County Hazard Mitigation Plan, in 2007 and in 2012 a rockslide struck and derailed passing trains. The 2007 slide derailed 22 rail cars; 20,000 gallons of peanut oil ruptured from several cars and 30,000 gallons of highly flammable denatured alcohol also spilled down the embankment. The 2012 incident was caused by a large boulder that fell onto the tracks and was struck by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train. Over 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the train into the Feather River.

The recent crude-by-rail spills throughout the U.S. showcase the dramatic rise in domestic oil production and rail shipments to coastal refineries. According to railroad data, in 2008 there were reportedly about 10,000 oil cars carrying domestic crude. In 2014, there were over 400,000 crude-by-rail train cars, representing a 4,000 percent increase. Furthermore, the type of crude oil coming from shale deposits from Bakken oil fields (commonly referred as “light crude”) is high combustible. In almost every instance in which trains carrying Bakken crude derail and tanker cars are punctured, fiery detonation results. First responders and emergency service crews can merely watch it burn and concentrate on containment perimeters rather than extinguishing the oil fire. Without sensationalizing a disaster that occurred in another place, had any of the recent oil tanker disasters happened along the Feather River route, particularly at locations near population areas including downtown Portola, Blairsden, Twain and Keddie, where the railroad tracks are relatively close, the extent of the damage could have been far different.

The grand jury would first like to acknowledge as a matter of fact that hazardous chemical hauling is an integral part of our economy. As potentially dangerous as they are, crude oil, gasoline and chemicals are used safely every day. Without them our economy and all the things we do, all the products we require in our daily lives, the way we move would be changed; just about everything revolves around the consumer and the safe use of chemicals and their byproducts.

That being said, the vital role of both the national carriers of hazardous materials and our public safety officials at each level is to make safety the No. 1 priority. Safety, defined here, entails the complete processing of any particular product, from its extraction and refinement to transportation, delivery and ultimate usage.

Railroads carry over 40 percent of our nation’s freight. When conducted safely and securely, commodity transport over rail is proven to be economically the best and most efficient mode of transportation in terms of fuel efficiency, supply chain costs and safety. Intermodal traffic refers to the transport of goods on trains. Today, two major rail companies, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, transport intermodal goods through Plumas County. According to the Union Pacific Railroad, chemical transport is roughly 17 percent of total payload being carried. The breakdown of goods, however, is not representative of actual train payloads. In other words, trains passing through the county could have any number of railcars full of one particular commodity or another and the cars may be full or empty.

The grand jury has found that the mission statements, top priorities, primary focus and action plans are remarkably similar in commitment, scope and language between hazardous material producers, transport carriers and government officials at every level. In other words, everyone directly engaged in the production and distribution of everything delivered over rail, by air or on pavement — as well as their overseers — share a common pledge to make safety their top priority in the public domain and the environment.

In addition, the grand jury has studied the after-action reports of many of the most recent crude-by-rail derailments and public highway chemical transport accidents and learned that in nearly every case, there were inspections completed days or weeks before the incidents, rail and highway speeds were under the mandated limits and handling of the volatile payloads were properly done according to federal safety mandates.

According to official published reports, there has been more oil spilled from trains in the past two years than in the previous four decades. Between 1975 and 2012, around 800,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled in the U.S. By comparison, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data, over 1.5 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars.

As a result of the series of ruptures and fires that have recently plagued the U.S., federal regulators are considering higher safety standards and further upgrades such as thicker tanks, rollover protection for chemical carrying tanker cars, electronic braking systems on individual rail cars and increased track inspections.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a notice for crude oil and high-hazard flammable trains tanker cars, calling for a phaseout of the older CTC-111A tanker car (commonly known as the DOT-111). Currently there are still around 300,000 CTC-111A cars still being used throughout the U.S. These tanker cars each generally carry between 20,000 and 30,000 gallons of oil. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation the older CTC-111As have the following safety flaws:

—Thin skins: Upon derailment, tanks often rupture.

—No head shields: Shields on both ends of tanker cars can prevent puncturing during collisions.

—Poor protection over valves and fittings.

—Lack of pressure relief devices for boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions.

In short, the older CTC-111A tanker cars were not designed for hauling flammable materials.

The new replacement tanker car, called the CPC-1232 (CPC is a railroad industry standard that stands for casualty prevention circular), features new standards for hazardous material railway transport. As of November 2011, all new tank cars built for transporting crude oil and ethanol must follow new standards, including half-height shields, thicker tank and head material, normalized steel, top fitting and gauge protection and recloseable pressure relief valves.

As of March 2015, there are reportedly 60,000 of the newer CPC-1232 tanker cars hauling crude in the U.S. In response to all the recent crude-by-rail derailments, Union Pacific, CSX and Burlington Northern Santa Fe have all stepped up in increased safety inspections and adapting new safety standards. The railroads are now relying on distributed power units, which place locomotives in the middle and/or both ends of the trains. Studies show that placing power locomotives on both ends and in the middle enhances safety because it even spreads physical forces on the train.

This revelation is significant — the 1991 Dunsmuir toxic chemical derailment was caused by this very reason. The power locomotive was placed in the rear of a 97-car train and light and empty cars flanked a full tanker car filled with 19,000 gallons of metam sodium. The investigation of the Dunsmuir disaster found that because all the power was placed at the rear of the large train, the uneven power distribution caused the train to buckle.

Metam sodium is a soil fumigant. When it spilled into the upper Sacramento River — because of poor containment action and the nature of toxicity of the chemical — it killed every plant and fish for approximately 40 miles downstream.

Railroads also use wayside electronic detectors to monitor railroad tracks. New safety detecting technology is also being used in their prevention and risk reduction process that features use of lasers and ultrasound to identify rail defects.

The grand jury has learned that many of the hazardous material railcars do not belong to the rail carrier but to the company producing and transporting the product. For example, most of the older CTC-111A and newer CPC-1232 tanker cars are actually owned by the crude oil fracking companies and refineries.

The number of trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials is actually based on sheer economics. For example, in 2014, when oil prices hovered around $100 a barrel, the price sent domestic oil production to an all-time high. Crude-by-rail oil shipments though Plumas County increased substantially as coastal refineries in Martinez and Benicia purchased more oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and other domestic oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma.

DISCUSSION
The grand jury chose a review of several recent U.S. crude-by-rail derailments for comparative reasons. The after-action reports provide valuable findings and recommendations from disasters that can happen anywhere, anytime. The reports are particularly invaluable to first responders, and public safety agencies.

After-action reports detail each incident from the time of the initial report that entails the scope and severity of the incident. In response to the above disastrous incidents, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a “call to action” in January, calling on “rail company executives, associations, shippers and state and federal agencies to discuss how stakeholders can prevent and mitigate the consequences of rail accidents that involve flammable liquids.”

The grand jury also believes that examining the recent corn spill in Plumas County and comparing it with the way other derailments were handled can lead to information and recommendations that enhance and hopefully improve upon the vanguards (prevention, preparedness, response, recovery) of any future local potential disaster.

The tenets from the PHMSA call to action report produced similar recommendations — a strategic approach that promotes “effective preincident planning, preparedness, response, outreach and training.” One important point that the grand jury kept hearing was a difficulty and lack of communication between the railroad and local emergency management officials. One of the key elements the PHMSA call to action report specifically addresses is the absolute need for interaction and relevant guidance to first responders and local emergency management teams to “safely and effectively manage incidents.”

The report also called for preincident planning and communication with all organizations to learn about what is being transported. Emergency response teams must have the training to safely contain and protect themselves and the contaminate zone affected. The need for a local hazmat team cannot be overemphasized.

The following crude-by-rail disasters summarized in this grand jury report illustrate some of the potential circumstances other public safety agencies have had to deal with. Despite all the mandated safeguards dealing with hazardous material hauling, i.e., safe speeds, upgraded rail cars, railcar and track inspections, specialized training, etc., accidents can happen anytime and anywhere within transportation routes of hazardous materials.

Plumas County and the surrounding 12 counties in northeastern California lie within Region 3 of the State Emergency Services System. At the time of this report, Plumas County has no hazmat team. Upon any need for hazmat response, Plumas County must contact nearby Butte or Shasta teams. In more serious incidents, Plumas County would have to enlist state or federal emergency service agencies.

Lac-Megantic, Canada: In July 2013 a train carrying 72 tank cars full of crude oil exploded after the train braking system released, sending the unmanned train on a downhill run into the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The runaway train crashed into a crowded downtown pub, killing 47 people and destroying over 30 buildings. According to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the train had been idling and unmanned for over seven hours and the emergency braking system disengaged. The train then rolled down the tracks for several miles, picking up speed and eventually derailing into downtown Lac-Megantic. Of the four disaster crude-by-rail spills mentioned in this report, the results from the official investigation determined that sheer neglect (train left running and unattended and braking system released, causing a runaway unmanned train) was the primary factor in the disaster.

Aliceville, Alabama: A 90-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed in November 2013 and exploded. Nearly 750,000 gallons of its 2 million gallon load spilled in wetlands in Alabama. Officials still assail cleanup operations today and report that containment booms and absorbent products were ineffective.

Lynchburg, Virginia: In April 2014 a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the James River. Oil fires from the ruptured tanker cars burned for two days. Reports indicate that the tanker cars were all the new CPC-1232 model.

Casselton, North Dakota: In December 2013 a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train hauling grain derailed and fell across another set of tracks. Shortly after, a crude oil train heading in the opposite direction struck the derailed cars and derailed itself. Several tanker cars exploded. A slow response to the first incident set up the chain of events for the explosive second incident.

Montgomery, West Virginia: In February 2015 a train carrying crude oil in West Virginia derailed sending 27 tanker cars off the tracks. Twelve of those rail cars exploded, not at once, but randomly for up to 12 hours. The cause is still under investigation.

In the event of a local hazardous material disaster, the Plumas County Office of Emergency Services is notified and it determines the scope and magnitude of the incident and then contacts the Plumas County Board of Supervisors. Depending on the incident assessment of the Plumas County OES, the BOS has the authority to officially declare an emergency, which allows the Plumas County OES to request help from relevant local, state and federal agencies.

Through leadership and partnership with all first responders, each incident goes through a foundational process that includes prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The first three steps of the mitigation process rely on the safe containment of the hazardous material as quickly as possible with a special focus on protecting human life (isolate, deny entry, protect life safely, mitigate). The recovery phase, however, can last for years. The Dunsmuir toxic spill, for example, seriously impacted the area for several years after. At the time of this report, the crude-by-rail spills were all still in the recovery phase. Fortunately, the Plumas County corn derailment had a minimal effect on the environment. The first three phases of emergency services mitigation at the corn spill served as a great training exercise for all agencies and first responders involved.

Recovery, in this case, was at a minimum in terms of environmental impact.

In regard to Plumas County hazmat, the grand jury has learned that the county must rely on local volunteers to devote their time as first responders.

Plumas County has had a difficult time finding enough volunteers to cover the entire county, and retaining volunteers after hazmat certification and specialized training has not worked out. All the local fire districts within Plumas County have been actively seeking volunteers.

FINDINGS
F1) The grand jury finds that communication between Plumas County public safety agencies and railroad officials is profoundly inadequate.

F2) The grand jury finds that the lack of spill and containment equipment along rail routes in Plumas County poses a direct threat to public safety and the natural environment.

F3) The grand jury finds that relying on hazmat response teams from surrounding counties compromises response times and threatens Plumas County public safety and natural resources.

F4) The grand jury finds that the lack of training of first responders concerning hazardous materials that they may have to deal with could have profound consequences.

F5) The grand jury finds that population centers within Plumas County that are in close proximity to railroads have grossly inadequate protection resources.

RECOMMENDATIONS
R1) The grand jury recommends Plumas County Emergency Services and the Plumas County Environment Health Agency establish direct local contact with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe and any hazardous material carrier that operates within the county.

R2) The grand jury recommends that Plumas County negotiate with railroad officials to have spill containment booms and absorbent kits in key strategic storage facilities in Plumas County.

R3) The grand jury recommends that the BOS find the means to provide hazmat training and certification to in-county first responders.

R4) The grand jury recommends more hazardous material training between first responders and all those involved in mitigating hazardous material disasters. Union Pacific, for example, offers tank car safety training in Roseville at the California Office of Emergency Services Specialized Training Institute every year. The training involves practically all aspects of hazardous material incident mitigation.

R5) The grand jury recommends that the BOS and Plumas County OES conduct a “what-if” evaluation for population centers within Plumas County that are within potential “blast zones” of crude-by-rail tanker cars.

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    KQED: California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

    Repost from KQED Science
    [Editor: Significant quotes: 1) by Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) – “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”  2) by Paul King, deputy directory for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission – “My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state.  These trains explode. If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage.”    – RS]

    California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

    Molly Samuel, KQED Science | July 21, 2014

    A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)
    A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)

    The number of trains carrying crude oil across California is increasing rapidly, and two official reports say the state is not ready. Regulators are preparing, with funds for disaster response and more track inspectors, but they’re limited in how much they can do to make rail transport safer.

    “My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state,” said Paul King, deputy directory for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

    “These trains explode,” King said. “If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage. And of course we know what happened in little Lac-Mégantic.” That’s the town in Quebec where a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed last July. The explosion killed 47 people.

    Bakken crude is volatile. In the past year, trains transporting crude from the Bakken have also exploded in North Dakota, Virginia and Alabama.

    Trains carrying Bakken crude traverse California, too, bringing the oil to refineries here. And while the CPUC regulates rail in California, the state can’t actually do much when it comes telling the railroads how they can operate. Almost all of those rules are up to the federal government.

    ‘Our Hands in California Are Tied’

    The state can’t set speed limits on crude oil trains. It can’t tell railroads to choose less hazardous routes. It can’t tell oil companies not to bring trains carrying the volatile crude through cities. It can’t tell oil companies to ship that crude in stronger tank cars. It can’t require upgraded braking systems.

    Neither can local governments, though the cities of Davis, Richmond and Berkeley have all passed resolutions expressing their opposition to the transport of crude oil by rail.

    “I almost feel like our hands in California are tied, yet all these trains are going through our communities,” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a democrat from Santa Barbara, said at a hearing last month.

    Trains carried nearly 6.3 million barrels of oil into California in 2013. That’s more than five times more than in 2012. According to the California Energy Commission, by 2016 that number could balloon to more than 100 million barrels.

    That’s because there’s an oil boom in the middle part of the continent, and to get that crude from Alberta and North Dakota to California, oil companies have to use trains.

    Firefighters douse blazes after in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
    Firefighters douse blazes in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

    Steps Towards Safer Shipping

    There are ways to make the trains safer.

    Most of the tank cars used to transport crude oil, including the volatile Bakken crude, are old, and can’t protect against explosions. After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada required that the most dangerous of the cars — the same tank cars that carry as much as 82 percent of crude oil in the U.S. — be removed from service, and that the rest be retrofitted.

    The U.S. is considering stricter tank car standards. Last week, the advocacy group Earthjustice sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging the agency to move faster by issuing an emergency order immediately banning the use of the unsafe cars.

    But California can’t require any of this. The CPUC intends to urge the DOT to “move expeditiously” to update its tank car regulations. That, and other recommendations, are laid out in a recent report on crude-by-rail safety in the state. The state wants the feds to require that there be newer braking technology on oil trains and a GPS-based system that prevents accidents on oil train routes. According to King, the CPUC will submit those recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration soon.

    The railroads have already adopted some voluntary safety measures, including lower speed limits and increased track inspections. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the company that is currently transporting large amounts of Bakken crude in California, is asking railcar manufacturers to submit bids to build 5,000 safer cars. (The railroads typically don’t own the cars used to ship material; the oil companies themselves either own or lease them.)

    The CPUC has done one of the main things it can: hire more railroad safety inspectors. The CPUC keeps a list of the most hazardous sections of track, and according to a recent report, the most frequent cause of derailments at those sites are track problems. The new state budget adds seven positions, bringing the CPUC’s inspection staff to 38. CPUC staff checks all the tracks in California once a year and, going forward, will check the tracks on Bakken oil train routes twice a year

    A Past Disaster

    California once tried to introduce stricter railroad regulations.

    In July, 1991, a train derailed in Northern California at a bend in the track where it crosses the Upper Sacramento River, near the town of Dunsmuir. It spilled 19,000 gallons of a pesticide called metam sodium into the river.

    “It killed everything down to the bacteria,” said Mark Stopher, who was hired by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the damage to the river.

    The poison killed more than a million fish, and every insect and plant in the river for 40 miles. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like that before,” he said. In video from the time, you can see fish struggling to escape the river and get into tributaries. Stopher said they all died.

    “It was kind of a blow to the heart to lose the river,” said Phil Dietrich, executive director of a conservation group called River Exchange.

    The Upper Sacramento had been a popular fishing destination. So when the fish were gone, the tourists, and their money, disappeared too.

    But it was a pulse of poison; metam sodium doesn’t linger. A few years later, the fish were back. The tourists are back, too. It could have been worse, if what spilled had been a substance that lasts in the environment for a longer time. Oil, for instance.

    After the accident, the CPUC tried to require stronger track at Cantara Loop, to keep it from happening again.

    “We were trying to adopt regulations where there were none,” said King. But they couldn’t. The railroad sued the CPUC, and eventually the court sided with the railroad, reinforcing the Federal Railroad Administration’s jurisdiction. There is a large rail in place on the bridge now, to help keep trains from derailing into the river. According to the CPUC, there have been four derailments in the area since 2009.

    “Our role is limited,” King said. “Our role is to ensure that the regulations that the federal government has in place are followed.”

    Beefing Up Clean-Up 

    Even if the the state can’t do all it wants to keep an accident from happening, it can prepare to respond to one.

    In June, dozens of fire fighters, public health experts and Red Cross volunteers gathered near Cantara Loop to run a drill. The scenario was that an oil train had collided with an illegal marijuana grower’s truck at the site of the ’91 spill. The truck wrecked, and the train derailed and spilled oil into the river. 

    Firefighters pulled the casualties (volunteers marked with paint) away from the scene, a helicopter brought tools to treat people who’d been doused in dangerous chemicals and a team deployed a drone to get a view of the (largely imaginary) disaster scene from above.

    “We want to make sure California’s prepared to respond,” said Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”

    OSPR got more money in this year’s budget, so that it can prepare for inland oil spills. Until now, the agency focused only on marine accidents. The state Office of Emergency Services is also looking for ways to better prepare emergency responders, many of whom are volunteers, for an oil train explosion. And state lawmakers are considering a couple of crude-by-rail bills that would improve emergency responses.

    Dietrich emphasizes that what happened in Dunsmuir in 1991 was a rare event, and yet, the memory lingers.

    “It comes down to we care about our river and about our towns,” he said. “And we hope that the agencies and the railroad are on top of it.”

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