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

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.

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.

The railroads and their allies in the trucking and chemical industries put up a herculean lobbying effort against the bill.

"I remember meeting with 100 lobbyists in the hallway and being impressed with how many men were there, as opposed to women. They were there working out the deals. The compromises and the language," Thompson aide Pat Leary recalls. "It wasn't quite an auction house, but there was a lot of shouting going on."

Even so, the Thompson bill passed relatively intact. The railroads, it said, would be subject to minimal state safety oversight at the handful of sites the Public Utilities Commission deemed extremely dangerous.

As Thompson and Leary battled in the Statehouse, Jim Pedri, head of the Redding office of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, contemplated ways to keep chemicals out of California's most important source of water: the Sacramento River. Although Southern Pacific, in Pedri's estimation, was one of the most arrogant, intransigent companies around, shortly after the 1991 accident, SP President Mike Mohan announced that the company would replace the curved span that led to the 1991 disaster with a new bridge.

"We cannot offer assurances that there will never be a derailment at that location," Mohan said, "but if it were to occur again, we'll catch it before it goes into the river."

Meanwhile, the state Department of Fish and Game drafted a plan to return the river to its former pristine state, permitting only catch-and-release fishing on sections of the river to allow the native trout to regenerate.

As if by miracle, that fall moss and algae began to return to their homes on the polished granite boulders at the river's bottom. Flies once again skipped over the ripples. The water's surface occasionally squirmed with the flourish of a native trout's tail. Some had predicted it would take 50 years for the river to come back to life, yet it had begun to resurrect within months.

Out of tragedy, it seemed, good things had come.
"It was like the spirits lifting, and you said to yourself, 'Oh, look, there's life there,' " McCloud says. "It was going to be OK."

For the railroad, however, the fight over the Cantara Loop had barely begun. First, there was the embarrassing situation in Dunsmuir.

For months Dunsmuir residents were regularly quoted in the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and in Southern Pacific's hometown San Francisco Examiner expressing outrage at the railroad's spill.

Almost by accident, Southern Pacific came upon an ingenious vehicle for muting those voices: the river recovery plan proposed by the Department of Fish and Game. As the state unveiled its intention to limit fishing on most of the upper Sacramento River to catch-and-release, some Dunsmuir merchants balked: They needed tourists to keep their businesses afloat, even if that meant dumping hatchery fish in the river and turning it into another commercial fishery. The state's fisheries biologists said most of the hatchery fish would starve in the lifeless river, and the few survivors would drive out native fish. But Southern Pacific joined the voices of the merchants.

Dunsmuir divided into strident and bitter camps. For many residents, the SP executives from San Francisco ceased to be the enemy; now it was the Fish and Game bureaucrats from Sacramento.

Back at the Cantara Loop, a year passed, then four years, but Southern Pacific had yet to build a bridge. The design SP engineers came up with -- a cistern-lined freeway-style bridge pierced by culverts -- was poorly engineered, some environmentalist critics said. Instead of addressing these problems, Southern Pacific allowed its controversial bridge design to slowly wallow in the state permit process.

Then, last June, Union Pacific, which had bought Southern Pacific in 1996, announced it would abandon SP President Mike Mohan's pledge to build a containing bridge at the Cantara Loop.

"We never felt that there was an absolute promise," UP spokesman Mike Furtney explains now. "If you look at Mike's comments, he said, 'We would explore the possibilities for the design of a bridge.' "

Only last month did the railroad accede, under pressure from the state, to build a device aimed at catching cars that fall off the track -- a 2-foot-wide suspended pipe, resembling a giant handrail. The rail is a far cry from the bridge Southern Pacific promised it would build, but certainly an improvement, state water quality expert Pedri says.

The railroad agreed to install the pipe only on the condition that the government paperwork related to the device not specify that Union Pacific was required to do it.

"They don't want to set a precedent," Pedri explains.

After seven years spent battling California's efforts to prevent another Cantara Loop spill, the railroad is now engaged in what may prove to be its most important fight. The effects of the spill -- both environmental and otherwise -- have largely dissipated. But Sen. Thompson's safety rules remain. So the railroads have retained the powerful Washington law firm Latham, Watkins to attempt to block Thompson's safety rules from taking effect.

California regulators anticipated such a fight, designing the rules to comply with the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against undue restriction of interstate commerce. In this vein, California used Union Pacific Railroad's internal safety rules as a template for the state regulations. Even these rules would only be enforceable at dangerous stretches of track such as the Cantara Loop. To further sugarcoat the medicine, the laws allowed railroads to change the rules after consulting with the state.

"We said we were going to adopt Class 1 railroads' -- the big railroads' -- own operating rules in the state of California, as our own," says Public Utilities Commission attorney Patrick Berdge. "We wanted to know when and if the railroad weakened their safety rules on train configuration so that we could prevent that kind of accident."

In its legal filings, Union Pacific says the rules are illegal. They violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution; they violate the turn-of-the-century Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act drafted to govern how U.S. agents inspected steam engines; and they run against the spirit of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, says Maureen Mahoney, who represents the railroads in this case.

"California is supposed to enforce the federal scheme, not invent its own rules," Mahoney says. "The railroads obviously have a very important interest in safety. When a train derails, there's hardly ever damage to the public. It's very rare. But the railroad can't run trains when there's a derailment. They have enormous incentives to prevent derailments. They have done a terrific job preventing derailments."

That's nonsense, says Lawrence Mann, a Washington attorney retained by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union. Accidents per rail employee have remained virtually unchanged from 1970, despite dramatic technological advancement during the ensuing years, Mann says. He blames this partly on the posture railroads have taken in courthouses around the country for much of this century. The battle lines are often the same: federal and state regulators, along with the railroad's own employees, fight for tighter safety controls; the railroads fight against them.

In 1970, the railroads assailed the Federal Railroad Safety Act as hampering transport, Mann says.

And now, in San Francisco, the railroad is brandishing that same law -- now claiming that it prohibits states from regulating trains. It doesn't, Mann says.

"I drafted that law," he says, adding that it specifically describes situations where states may regulate trains. The Cantara Loop is one such situation, he says.

A decision is expected soon from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether California can enforce its safety rules. If the railroads win in San Francisco, Union Pacific would be free to forget the lessons of the 1991 spill. It could dumb down its internal safety rules in a way that could allow another carload of chemicals to jump the track, without violating state or federal law. Perhaps Jim Pedri's new guardrail will catch such a wayward car. Perhaps it won't.

Meanwhile, every day, carloads of sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, anhydrous ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, and almost every other dangerous chemical used in the state of California roll 30 feet above the upper Sacramento, their wheels pressing at the sides of the horseshoe-curved rails of the Cantara Loop.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.