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Is This Any Way to Run A Railroad? 

Union Pacific's tenacious fight to gut safety laws passed when a derailment sterilized 40 miles of the upper Sacramento River

Wednesday, Aug 12 1998
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Ron McCloud, the quiet, bearded proprietor of Dunsmuir Hardware, doesn't remember the name or the precise occupation of the stranger who visited this Siskiyou mountain town seven years ago last July.

The stranger had been at Point William Sound following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and was now visiting the site of the worst inland environmental disaster in California history. An underpowered freight train, driven by an inadequately trained crew, riding on excessively greased rails, had yanked a 19,000-gallon tank car of weed killer off its tracks and into the upper Sacramento River, just above Dunsmuir. The resulting toxic plume killed fish, snails, insects, otters, algae -- every single life form in its path -- for 40 miles downstream.

It was a rare moment in 20th-century industrial history. Careless corporations had in the past caused waterways to catch fire and run yellow with chemical residues. But San Francisco's Southern Pacific Railroad had done something apparently unprecedented: It had sterilized 13 leagues of California's greatest river.

Judging from previous large environmental disasters, the stranger said, events to follow were as good as foretold.

"Based on what he had observed in Alaska, he said we were going to see total upheaval of our local government. We were going to see lines drawn and factions formed, pulling and pushing for various and sundry issues -- perhaps seemingly unrelated to the spill issue -- but all these things would rise to the surface," says McCloud. "He said we would see social upheaval from the standpoint of increased divorce, increased truancy, increased domestic violence. He said that we would experience people who had never before been involved in local government and local affairs throwing their hat in the ring and getting involved. At the same time, we would see people who had been involved stepping back and getting out of it.

"We observed most of those things he predicted took place. We saw our local government undergo a terrific upheaval. We saw a recall of our city council. We saw a resignation of our city manager. We saw a disbanding of our police department. Maybe these things would have taken place anyway. But they happened very quickly because of all of the stresses that were on this community."

Like the citizens of Dunsmuir, the Southern Pacific Railroad (and the Union Pacific Railroad that bought San Francisco's SP in 1996) acted predictably. These railroads did the same thing America's railroads ordinarily do following major chemical spills.

From the moment Southern Pacific's cloud of metam sodium killed the upper Sacramento, the railroad stalled, obstructed, obfuscated, and sidetracked efforts to prevent a repeat of the Cantara Loop spill. It is routine, of course, for corporations and their insurers to fight regulation at every turn. But the Cantara Loop case provides a rare glimpse into just how tenacious companies involved in such struggles can be.

The railroad has fought this battle on many fronts. It launched a massive lobbying campaign to prevent the passage of railroad safety laws in Sacramento. It stalled the state's efforts to have a spill-containment bridge built for seven years. It tried to undermine California's attempts to restore the Sacramento River to its previous natural state.

And right now, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is considering a request from Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroads to block California Public Utilities Commission safety rules drafted to prevent chemical spills. A similar request is being considered in the U.S. District Court for Northern California.

If the industry viewpoint prevails, the railroad could commit the same acts of negligence it did on July 14, 1991, and again violate not a single federal law or regulation.

If that occurs, McCloud says, he'll sell the hardware store he's owned for 22 years and the house whose porch faces one of America's great, pristine trout streams.

"I think if it ever happened again I'd pack my bags and just leave," he says. "I wouldn't want to go through what this community went through again."

The Cantara Loop section of the Union Pacific railway appears on maps as an impossible contrivance, perhaps a prank by a poorly supervised cartographer. After taking an ambling route north from Lake Shasta along the Sacramento River, the railroad appears to lose its bearings just two miles north of Dunsmuir, where it completely doubles back on itself, and the two tracks run against each other for more than a mile before the track doubles back yet again. But it's no mistake. A 10-minute walk from a country road north of Dunsmuir reveals a dramatically curved section of track switching back and forth up the 2.2 percent grade from the Sacramento River canyon toward the base of Mount Shasta. The apex of the curve is supported by a 25-foot-high bridge over the upper Sacramento, a wild stream known by fly fishermen for its feisty indigenous trout. Wrapped around the now-abandoned town of Cantara, this is one of the most dangerous sections of rail in the United States.

It is on pieces of track such as these that the pilot of a railroad locomotive earns the title "engineer." A train car stays on its track only when the wheels' downward force on the rail is greater than the sideways force. Around a tight curve cars tend to pull toward the inside of the turn, so careful engineers stack their heavy cars to the front, the light ones to the rear, to prevent a lighter middle section of the train from being snapped straight across the U-shaped bend. The careful engineer makes a point of pulling particularly steady through turns to avoid the sideways forces generated by sudden surges. The engineer keeps constant track of each car in the train.

Southern Pacific had already earned a reputation for lax attention to safety during the 1970s and '80s, three state regulators said in interviews. This situation was made even worse by a 1988 leveraged buyout by Denver billionaire Philip Anschultz. Anschultz's aim, it now seems in hindsight, was to carve the company up into its component parts, then sell them off in the style of leveraged buyouts of that day. By the beginning of the 1990s, railroad workers felt compelled to take cost-cutting measures, sometimes at the expense of safety, according to a now-retired SP official who was present at the scene of the 1991 Cantara Loop spill.

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Matt Smith

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