It was July 14th, 1991 when a Southern Pacific tank car spilled 19,000 gallons of the soil fumigant metam sodium into the Upper Sacramento River near Dunsmuir, on a large turn called the Cantara Loop. The chemical flowed 41 miles down the river into Shasta Lake, killing more than a million fish and hundreds of thousands of trees.
The accident still ranks as the largest hazardous chemical spill in California history.
This terrible event had lasting effects on our beloved river, closing the waterway to fishing and recreation and having devastating implications on residents in the Dunsmuir area. The chemical spill was so toxic that it left residents in the area sick and scientists weren’t even allowed to inspect the water for three days after the accident.
“People said keep your windows shut. Don’t let that stuff in your house. Or don’t go outside. You might drag it in,” says Kristi Osborn, then a heavy equipment operator with a two-year-old daughter. Others, she recalls, said to keep the windows open and get that stuff out of the house.
“It was crazy, not knowing what to do,” she says.
Even more of an impact came on the wildlife in the long stretch of river from Dunsmuir to Shasta Lake:
“The rocks were clean. There was no moss. There was no life in the river,” says Osborn, now a Bay Area resident. Then, she led Concerned Citizens of Dunsmuir and testified before Congress about local health effects.
Souther Pacific eventually paid a $38 million settlement for damages, cleanup and restoration. And thankfully, that stretch of the river was rejuvenated within 3 to 4 years and the fish population eventually returned to the area, proving that nature is a very powerful force.
We can only hope that as time goes by, these mistakes aren’t forgotten. The railroad system crosses the Sacramento River many times between Mt. Shasta and Shasta Lake… We can’t have another accident like this to any of our local waterways.
Today, a memorial sits at the Cantara Loop where the accident happened – a grim reminder of the tragedy and the regenerative power of nature.
Let’s hope a horrific accident like this never happens again.