An Oral History of the Cantara Chemical Spill on the Sacramento River

Northern California is no stranger to disasters. Over time we’ve lived through earthquakes, volcanos, firenados, floods, mudslides and avalanches. Would anyone really be surprised if it started raining frogs? 

To those of us who love fishing, the Cantara tragedy on the upper Sacramento River stands out as one of those darkest of times. A Southern Pacific railroad train derailed above Dunsmuir dumping thousands of gallons of the toxic herbicide metam sodium into the river. Every fish, insect, crayfish, mollusk and aquatic plant died in the days that followed as the poison made its way toward Shasta Lake. 

The following is a conversation between two people intimately involved. Mike Berry was in charge of California’s Wild Trout Program for DFG (California Department of Fish & Game, now called Dept. of Fish & Wildlife) in northern California. Chip O’Brien was a Regional Manager for the conservation group California Trout.

O’Brien: I’d like to take you back in your mind to July 14th, 1991. How did you hear about the Cantara Incident?

Berry: I was running the Wild Trout Program at the time for northern California. We were up at Elliot Creek (along the California/Oregon border), we’d gone up into Oregon and past the Applegate Reservoir. We were at Elliot Creek working. A game warden came flying into our camp on a Code 3. I stepped out of the back of my truck. The warden asks “Are you Mike Berry?” I said, “Yeah.” “You have to come with my right now.”

I honestly thought my family must have died in a fiery crash or something. We talked about it for a minute and he said there’d been this chemical spill and they need you back in Redding. We had a crew of about five people, so we packed up the crew and high-tailed it back to Redding so we could work at the command center there. 

O’Brien: Was that on the morning of July 15th, which would have been the morning after?

Berry: Yeah.

O’Brien: I remember it because I’d gone over to Kangaroo Courts (now Shasta Athletic Club) to work out that morning and the kid behind the desk asked if I had heard what had happened on the Upper Sacramento River. All I remember is they had a pay phone in their lobby and I spent the next 5 ½ hours on that pay phone talking with various people. I was working for California Trout (CalTrout) in those days. How much longer after that were you with Department of Fish & Game?

Berry: Until about 1997. I quit and did the house-dad thing in Spokane for three or four years. Then I came back in 2000 and stayed with Fish & Game for another ten years. 

O’Brien: Were you there from the start of the disaster through the re-opening of the river after?

Berry: Yeah, in fact two years into it they got settlement money from the railroad and started that whole new program, the whole Cantara Program with a fish biologist and a wildlife biologist, a botanist, etc., but until they got that program up and running I was basically the lead in determining how recovery would go. 

O’Brien: I would think that might have been rather contentious. As I recall it, Southern Pacific Railroad wanted to say, “Oh heavens, just put more fish in the river and we’ll call it good.”

Berry: Not only Southern Pacific, but there’s a lot of people, like people who own liquor stores, who said, ‘We sell beer to those folks that come up to catch hatchery fish.’ Even some of the environmental groups felt that it was unfair not to let people fish that entire river. We estimated it would be 4-5 years for full recovery. Immediately we began snorkeling the tributaries that were unaffected by the spill, and upstream of the spill area to get an idea of how many fish were in those tributaries to re-populate the river. There are literally hundreds of miles of tributary streams. Each of those tributaries had probably two to three thousand trout per mile. Right after the spill when we were allowed to get back in the river after the chemical had dissipated, I remember going to places like the mouth of Castle Creek and Soda Creek snorkeling. There would be all these juvenile fish hanging out at the mouth. I remember at the mouth of Soda Creek and laying down in a riffle, I was looking for midge larvae or anything coming back. Those juvenile fish were hanging out with me looking for something to eat!

O’Brien: That’s right, because the metam sodium killed everything; the bugs, the plants, the mollusks and everything else. 

Berry: The stream was sterile. 

O’Brien: Any fish going down into the main stem of the river could only come back as the macroinvertebrates came back or they’d starve, right?

Berry: Right. The first thing that came back were the little blackfly larvae, and they came back fairly quickly. These juvenile fish that were moving downstream from these tributaries, that was the start of what they had to eat. This fight not to plant hatchery fish, we’re just like, ‘Well, there is absolutely nothing to eat!’ A: They’re going to starve. B: They’re going to feed on the wild fish coming back out of the tributaries. We cannot stock. I even had people in Fish & Game tell me I was going to lose my job, my career fighting with management about this. I was the first Wild Trout Biologist in the Northern Region. So the mindset was still hatchery fish. Hatcheries were still king back then. The fisheries chief in the office called me into his office. In a meeting I disagreed with him on a couple of points. He said, ‘Well, let me tell you, Mike. You know, you haven’t been around that long. But years ago I was fishing around up there and hooked into this fish that leapt like a salmon and it was twenty inches long.’ So he finished his big old story, and I looked at him and said ‘Yeah, you realize that was a wild fish, right?’ I thought I was going to get fired right there. He hit the roof!

Fortunately there was a guy at headquarters in Sacramento who caught on to where I was coming from and said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ And he was high enough up in Fish & Game management that he told everybody, ‘No, we’re not going to plant fish.’

About a year later we were in a big regional meeting where the Director came up to talk to everybody and we were supposed to introduce ourselves. When I introduced myself, the hatchery people booed me!

Dead fish following the chemical spill on the Sacramento River

O’Brien: I would take that as a compliment!

Berry: I sort’a did. I thought I was going to have to chain myself to a hatchery truck! An interesting aside to that is, just prior to the spill we were getting complaints that the fish we planted at Simms Campground weren’t returning. We’d plant a thousand pounds of fish, and people would say ‘We aren’t catching any fish.’ 

One day before the hatchery truck got up there the District Biologist and I jumped into the river with our snorkeling gear at Simms Campground. We were just hanging out looking for fish, but there was nothing going on. There were no fish, no little fish, no hatchery fish, nothing. So the hatchery fish pulls up. You could hear the rumbling of the truck underwater. I was downstream maybe thirty yards from where the truck was going to dump hanging onto a stick underwater. I was submerged with only my snorkel out of the water. As soon as the rumbling of that truck started, all these pikeminnow came out from under the undercut banks. One of them got right underneath me, this 30-inch pikeminnow was using me for cover! The truck started dumping fish and it was a free-for-all! 

This hatchery trout was swimming toward me, and this pikeminnow grabs the fish by the head and sucks it down in about two convulsions. Then it goes for another one. There’s this feeding frenzy going on. That night we dropped an electro-fishing boat in there and caught a bunch of the big pikeminnow. We cut a bunch of them open and some of them had five or six big hatchery trout in them. 

So after the spill, one of the fisheries seniors said, ‘OK, we’re going to put a barrier up at Lake Shasta to keep these pikeminnow out. I said, ‘Well, there’s brown trout and rainbow trout that come up from the lake that augment this fishery. We can’t put a barrier in. I said what’s happening is these pikeminnow were coming upriver to spawn, and then we start feeding them! We’re dumping a thousand pounds of fish on them, so they’re sticking around! Now that the spill has happened they’ve all been poisoned out. Pikeminnow live in harmony with wild fish. If we stop stocking this, it’s not going to be a problem. There were a lot of people who fought that. We turn the whole section from Dunsmuir downstream into wild trout water that we did not stock and put special angling regulations on and those pikeminnow never showed up again. For years we would go into Simms and electro-fish to see how the fish population recovered. Those pikeminnow just never showed up again. Pretty soon we had the full complement of fish again.

O’Brien: That’s a great story. You know, I think I have a pretty thorough understanding of the benefits of a natural fishery as opposed to a hatchery fish-based fishery. What are your thoughts on that? Why are the wild trout better for the river?

Berry: One of the things we learned early on is that hatchery fish just don’t adapt well to the wild. They have been bred to look for food at the surface, they all congregate because at the hatchery they just throw a bunch of food on the surface. Wild fish avoid predators by staying hidden until there’s food. They are feeding at the bottom where the natural food is. They also have these behavioral characteristics. A big fish, just through intimidation, “body language,” will move smaller fish out of their feeding zone. So all of a sudden you bring in a thousand pounds of hatchery fish who don’t know anything about fish “social life,” the body language. They just sit there in these feeding lanes and have the wild fish show their aggressive behavior to them, and they’re use to having other fish around them, so they just hang out there and pretty quick it wears out the wild fish and they go off o these sub-optimum areas. Then the hatchery fish die out because they don’t know how to feed, and they’re caught easily, so you actually reduce the entire trout population of your water.

O’Brien: How does a wild trout fishery effect the overall economy versus a hatchery-based fishery?

Berry: When I took over the Wild Trout Program, there were very few wild trout waters. There were your major ones like Fall River and Hat Creek. We converted Manzanita Lake, the upper Sac. And it was a fight. I actually had practically death threats mailed to Fish & Game because we were trying to convert these waters. 

A lot of the bait fishermen come in with their can of worms and their Pautzke’s. They sit down with their six-pack of beer and their inexpensive gear and plop down and fish. When you’ve got a wild fishery you attract the kind of people who spend a lot of money on gear. They come from all over the state and sometimes the world to fish, so they’re staying in motels. They’re getting guides. If you’re coming all the way from New York to fish the upper Sac, you’re going to get a guide for the first day or so to learn the river. It really boosts the economy when people are staying in motels, getting guides; they’re buying more expensive flies and full lunches and the works. 

You don’t get a bait fisherman from Oklahoma that targets the upper Sac because they want to go catch a hatchery fish. But you will get a fly fisherman from Oklahoma who will spend the night, learn the river, get a guide and do all that if they can catch a 22-inch feisty wild trout. 

Because I had inside information, I knew when the Sacramento River would open again to fishing, and I invited my dad over. It was a wild fishery so it was artificial flies and lures only. My dad’s not a fly fisherman so him and I were throwing lures, little Panther Martins. After a couple of hours my fingers were so sore from those fish hitting that lure. They hadn’t seen a lure in five years. You’d throw a lure into some good-looking water and start reeling it in, and I was actually flinching because I knew it was going to hurt when the fish hit!

O’Brien: That’s coincidental because I also remember the day the upper Sac opened back up. I only had a few hours at the end of the day to go fishing. We went up to McCardle Flat and, Oh my Lord, it was amazing! I caught and released so many fish. We fished until I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but the fish were everywhere. 

Berry: And they were aggressive, right?

O’Brien: Very much so!

Berry: They hadn’t seen an artificial fly or lure in five years!

O’Brien: That was an evening I’ll not soon forget. 

Berry: My ring finger was actually bruised from those fish hitting that line.

O’Brien: I’m just curious, Mike; were you surprised at how quickly things came back? I know not everything did, but did you find it surprising or did you expect it to recover at the rate that it did?

Berry: I expected it to recover at the rate that it did just because I had done so much snorkeling in the tributaries and saw the quality of those fish even in those small tributaries like Castle Creek and Soda Creek. One of the famous pictures from the spill was all of these trout crowded in the mouth of Boulder Creek trying to get in as the chemical came down, but they couldn’t get up that creek. It was one that I would like to have seen restored, but it never was. 

O’Brien: The river still recovered remarkably well, even though not everything came back. I remember hearing something about mollusks taking much longer to come back than was expected. 

Berry: The mollusks, just because they don’t move around that much. There were people saying it’ll never recover, and if we don’t put hatchery fish in there it will never recover. No, it will be fine, what you need to do is leave it alone. It’s like taking the Serengeti, nuking it, and then bringing lions back. ‘Let’s plant a bunch of lions!’

O’Brien: How do you think the river compares today versus how it was before the spill?

Berry: I think it’s better because we now have catch and release regulations.

O’Brien: Isn’t there a middle, ten-mile section where they still stock hatchery fish?

Berry: I don’t think it’s even ten miles. I think it’s less than that.

O’Brien: Six miles might be more accurate.

Berry: Before they stocked the entire river. Any place they could get a hatchery truck they stocked fish. 

O’Brien: Didn’t a geneticist come in and look at the DNA of the wild fish to see how much encroachment there was on the wild fish; how much the wild fish and millions of hatchery fish they put in there interbred? Wasn’t she astounded by how little they interacted, I mean there was almost no cross-breeding. The DNA of the wild fish was still relatively pure.

Berry: That’s absolutely right. That study’s been done a couple of times. It was done in conjunction with the spill. It was done again in conjunction with the plan to put steelhead or salmon up above Shasta. Even places like Clear Creek up above Whiskeytown Reservoir where a lot of hatchery fish were stocked. Hatchery fish just don’t know how to live in the wild. In the hatchery they’re spawned artificially, they’re fed artificially. They’ve been domesticated. It’s like taking your poodle out into the wilds of Alaska and saying, ‘Well, they’ll be fine. They’ll interbreed with wolves!”

O’Brien: That’s hilarious!

Berry: They’re just domestic animals.

An anecdotal story I sometimes tell. About three days after the spill I was working the Command Center up in Dunsmuir. They were trying to find out how many fish died. They had crews out picking up dead fish in representative regions. I had a crew of CCCs (California Conservation Corps) that I had radio contact with. In Sacramento they are telling me the chemical that had spilled into the river was nasty. It’s toxic. ‘If anyone falls in you’ve got to get them back in the showers immediately. When you’re done you have to throw away all their rubber gloves and rubber boots. It’s nasty, nasty cyanide-based toxic.’ The CCC crew got out there, and they hadn’t been out of their van for ten minutes when somebody fell in the water. Soon they told me they had somebody in the water. I told them, well, you need to get them here as soon as you can. He hadn’t even got the kid loaded into the bus when and off of the gravel bar when another kid falls in. 

I go ‘Oh, oh.’ So I called Sacramento (DFG headquarters)and said, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’ They said, ‘Hey, it’s OK. Don’t worry about it. They don’t need to take showers.’ So I said, ‘So you’ve got new information from somebody telling you this.’ ‘No, no,’ they said. We’ve just decided.’ They’d told me early on just how toxic it was. 

Chemicals seen in the river following the spill

O’Brien: Didn’t it dissipate in like 36 hours?

Berry: Once the metam sodium got into Shasta Lake, they had big aerators in the lake. They pumped water in from trucks on barges. They were afraid this was going to go through Shasta Lake and kill everything down to the town of Sacramento.  

O’Brien: You’ve got Endangered Species issues there, too.

Berry: You’ve got drinking water, you’ve got everything. They aerated the water as it came into Shasta Lake from the Sacramento River, and air neutralizes the stuff. But the problem was, because it was cyanide-based, there was this cyanide cloud. As the wind shifted it moved up and down the river. That’s how you got a lot of trees that died, and birds and why we weren’t really allowed in the river ‘till the figured out what to do with that cloud. 

O’Brien: Did it finally dissipate?

Berry: It did. We were in the water pretty quickly. That was another thing. After the CCC kids were picking up fish, there were fish in the deep pools that needed to be picked up. We had contacted a place out of Minnesota that does hazardous diving. They looked at the fact sheet on this stuff (metam sodium) and they’re like, ‘No, we aren’t doing that.’

So they decided that we biologists would do it! They brought up this Safety Officer from Sacramento who was this Game Warden I had known in Monterey who I wasn’t exactly enamored with. He’s like, ‘OK, here’s some snorkels and masks. Get in the water, and when you’re done throw away your snorkels and masks because this stuff will melt the rubber on them.’ I’m wondering what is this stuff going to do to my eyes? They said, ‘Well, we’re not sure.’ The first day I refused to get in the water. Some of the other biologists were kind of mad at me. I said, “I’m going to see what you look like tomorrow!’ We had to get our blood drawn and everything to see how this was going to change our blood count. So I’m like, ‘Hey, so the hazardous material guys won’t dive. The guy who’s telling us to dive was a warden who knows nothing about it.’ I’m like, ‘So you guys are going to trust this?’ By the next day I was in.

O’Brien: That’s an incredible story-

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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