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

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.

Not long before the spill, SP track managers were given orders from Denver to add extra oilers -- devices that squirt oil on the track to reduce friction and prevent costly wear -- despite the resulting increased risk of slippage. Under Anschultz, Southern Pacific reduced the amount of power required for trains. SP had also relaxed internal railroad safety rules governing the way trains were configured at the switching yard, according to a state investigation following the Cantara spill.

On the night of July 14, 1991, the four-engine train that bent itself around the Cantara Loop and started up the side of the canyon toward Mount Shasta was typical of those chugging through the Siskiyou Mountains in those days. Two of the engines were found to have mechanical defects. The 97 cars behind them were improperly stacked, with long, empty cars ahead of short, loaded ones. Nearing the loop, the engineer, who had taken over at Dunsmuir, twice felt his wheels slipping. The sliding continued through the curve, increasing near the rail oilers.

The engineer added sand to the tracks to reduce slippage and made what a report called "improper throttle manipulations." A hundred yards past the bridge, the engines surged and yanked the last locomotive and the first seven cars across the 180-degree curve, draping them across the river. One -- a white, unmarked tanker without the safety equipment customary for containers carrying dangerous chemicals -- was yanked so high off the track that its wheels left no mark when they skipped the rail. The car tumbled down the embankment into the water, its hull was ripped open, and the liquid inside began to flow into the river. The metam sodium -- an herbicide and soil fumigant chemically similar to the substance released at the Union Carbide disaster at Bhopal, India -- spent the next few days flowing toward Lake Shasta, 40 miles downstream.

Southern Pacific waited 12 hours before admitting it had a serious problem on its hands. During that time the life-giving water of the upper Sacramento became a tomb for every creature in it. Green, algae-covered rocks were scoured gray. The river ran thick with the swelled, white bellies of perished trout.

"I went down the street here and across the Butterfly Avenue Bridge and I stopped there and I looked in the river and I could see the dead fish floating, and I stood there just stunned looking at this for a while," McCloud recalls. "Then I went on down to a big swimming hole that is a very popular fishing place, and I stopped there, and it was full of dead fish. And I stood there, and I cried. I'm not embarrassed to tell you; I was hurt. We chose to live on the river because we love it. We love the sound of it, the look of it, the coolness of it, the fishing right there. We watch the insects. We watch the birds. We watch the fish.

"It was like losing a loved one."

Suddenly, the obscure mountain fishing town of Dunsmuir -- whose main claim to fame had been its "best-tasting water in the world" -- became internationally notorious. For a brief time, its population increased dramatically.

Members of some 30 law enforcement agencies converged on the site of the spill. Interstate 5 was blocked for hours. For hours after that, motorists were not allowed into Dunsmuir, lest they breathe metam sodium fumes. Representatives from more than 100 news organizations swarmed past Dunsmuir's antique, western storefronts. Tort lawyers from around the country jammed local hotels.

The San Francisco railroad brought its people in too, but they were quieter. During the first week of the spill officials from the company's legal department set up shop in town and began knocking on the doors of local businesses -- who had been hurt by the sudden drop-off in fly-fishing tourists -- asking them to agree to cash settlements in exchange for secrecy. In all, the company later said, it paid out $12 million in private cash settlements. A separate class action suit gleaned another $13.5 million from the railroad. The state Attorney General's Office also sued the railroad for reimbursement of cleanup costs, eventually settling for $40 million.

As it happened, the metam sodium released at Cantara flowed into the district of Santa Rosa state Sen. Mike Thompson. California politicians had fought the railroads over safety issues in the past to little avail, but things were different this time: Thompson, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, was one of the most powerful politicians in California, and Southern Pacific had dealt him a seemingly unbeatable hand of cards. Southern Pacific followed its Cantara Loop spill two weeks later with a news-making spill of the chemical hydrazene at the Southern California town of Sea Cliff, requiring authorities to temporarily shut down Highway 101. The public was outraged. Sen. Thompson sponsored a bill ordering a short-list of state safety regulations.

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