President's Message July 14, 2016

This series of articles is dedicated to the memory of Bill Berry and Gene O’Rourke, past members of the Board of Directors of The River Exchange.

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 "How's the river doing?" When I first met Gene O’Rourke, that’s what he asked me.  Gene was a San Francisco accountant and a fisherman and a smart, fun, kind man.  He and his wife Linda had a house in Dunsmuir, and he simply loved the Upper Sacramento River.   Now, five years later, my friend and fellow River Exchange Board Member has passed away, and his friendly but persistent concern still pulls at my mind and my heart.  And my answer today is the same:  “Gene, standing by the river, it looks good, but it’s more complicated than it looks.  We can’t take it for granted.”

Today, July 14, 2016, is the 25th anniversary of the catastrophic Cantara Loop Spill.  A railroad car containing the pesticide metam sodium landed in the river beneath the bridge, and the spill killed all life in the river for almost 40 miles down to Shasta Lake.  Thankfully, the river seems to have recovered (but it’s complicated!)

On this anniversary, I’m starting this blog.  First I’ll say that the aftermath of the Cantara Spill is history, and I mostly intend to leave it there, water under the bridge.  (For more info on the spill see https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/OSPR/NRDA/Cantara-Loop-Dunsmuir, and a story map at http://arcg.is/1smvoth).  This blog article will be the first in a series about the present and the future.   I’m going to begin to describe what I’m learning asking that simple question:    ” How’s the river doing?”  Hey, it’s complicated, because it’s not just about the fish in the river, it’s about how the river affects our lives, and how we affect the river, in so many ways.

That seemingly simple question could lead us to consider railroad cars, tracks and bridges, oil and pesticides, fly fishing, bait fishing, wild trout, stocked trout, the return of salmon, sewage, trash, school kids and teachers, art, biologists and bureaucrats, birds, bugs, snails, drought, rain and snow, climate, invasive plants, clearcuts and logging roads, wildfire, kayaking and rafting, parks, public access and private property, advocacy and apathy, on and on.  And, an outfit called The River Exchange.

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I’ll start with this:  Sadly, the backdrop for this anniversary and this first article is yet another frightening flaming railroad accident, this time on the Union Pacific line along the Columbia River at Mosier, Oregon.  On June 2, 2016, several oil cars derailed and burned for 14 hours within a few hundred feet of a small town and school.  Luckily, no one was injured and the spill didn’t reach the river.  The town lost their sewage system and their drinking water, but it could have been much worse.  

Equally disturbing are reports in the Portland media (http://www.oregonlive.com) about recent failing grades in safety inspections on Union Pacific trains and tracks in Oregon, and the finding that recent inspections did not notice the failing rail attachment bolts that led to the accident.  The Director of the National Transportation Safety Board has called on the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and the tank car industry to speed up implementation of new tank car design standards.   Oregon’s governor and two U.S. senators have called for a moratorium on oil trains passing through Oregon – which would probably affect the Union Pacific line through the Sacramento Canyon.  For now, the oil trains are running again.

At least 3 times in the last 4 years, Union Pacific railroad cars have derailed in the Sacramento Canyon.  Only one car went into the Upper Sacramento River (that one in 2014) and it was not carrying toxic material.  Each year hundreds of trains travel the canyon, and thousands of rail cars.  The mathematical chance of a de-rail is tiny, and the chance of a catastrophe even smaller.  But inarguably, it happens.  According to the Associated Press, there have been 27 oil train de-railments around the country within the last decade.  

Locally, Union Pacific’s massive barrier at the Cantara Bridge that Bill Berry fought for in the 1990s is a critically important safety improvement, but the more recent derailments have happened at seemingly random places in the canyon.

I recently discussed this with our California Assemblyman, Brian Dahle.  His district includes both the Sacramento River Canyon and the Feather River Canyon, both with railroad lines in hazardous locations.  His view is that we can only regulate equipment up to a point, and that human error will always be a factor.  He said that what we can do is prepare, and that legislators are discussing increasing resources for accident response.  That sounds like a good idea to me.

I also spoke with Rick Dean, hazardous materials specialist at the Siskiyou County Office of Emergency Services.  He told me the Dunsmuir Fire Dept. just received a new trailer with swift-water spill containment booms, with accompanying training, under a grant from the California Office of Spill Prevention & Response (OSPR) https://cdfgnews.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/siskiyou-county-receives-equipment-and-training-for-oil-spill-response/. He also said that several local Cal-Fire staff recently trained in Haz-Mat response.  But he also noted that although oil cars are receiving a lot of publicity, there are several chemicals carried on trains that are much more toxic and difficult to deal with in an accident.

So the good news is that preparedness is improving, and maybe there’s more on the way.  New California law requires railroads to develop contingency plans, and those are underway http://www.caloes.ca.gov/for-individuals-families/hazardous-materials.  But Rick Dean also noted the overwhelming physical challenges of accident response in the Sacramento Canyon, especially in the un-roaded fast water section above Dunsmuir –where a train de-railed on April 29 of this year.  He said that responders might have to chase a spill downriver on I-5 after the toxic material passed through Dunsmuir.  And, he said that further development of evacuation plans and better implementation of the Code Red notification system would be very desirable.

I’ll return to the subject of rail safety in future blogs.   We need to keep pressure on the legislature, Congress, regulatory agencies, and Union Pacific.  And keep your fingers crossed.  

So, how’s the river doing?  It’s complicated.  We can’t take a healthy river for granted.