A Toxic Nightmare:

The Dunsmuir Metam Sodium Spill Revisited

[ 9 Year Later Meta Sodium poisons town ] * [ A Victim writes ]

This toxic nightmare began Sunday, July 14th. 1991 at 9:50 P.M. when a 97-car Southern Pacific train lurched while rounding the Cantara loop in the upper Sacramento River gorge. Seven tankers suddenly derailed and plunged from the river trestle. One landed in the middle of the Sacramento River in about two feet of water. The conductor first checked to see if the tanker's contents were listed as hazardous. Finding no reason for concern, he and the engineer went to survey the damage but were put off by the poisonous smell. They radioed headquarters that they were "getting the hell out of there!" Uncoupling the engine, they hurried on to Mt. Shasta, the next town up the line. The tanker, left lying on its side, slowly leaked nineteen thousand gallons of the pesticide, metam sodium, into one of the more well known, pristine wild trout streams in California. It wasn't until early the next morning that the full extent of this tragedy started to materialize.

"Because we did not initially believe we had a hazardous material involved in the derailment, we did not react to this as we would have if someone had called and said we have a chlorine tank leaking, for example." (R.J. Webb, investigator for the state Public Utilities Commission).

Nine hours after the accident it became clear that metam sodium was indeed having a toxic effect on the river and the entire ecosystem. "At daybreak the smell was so noxious near Dunsmuir that it was difficult to breathe. A pea-green foam was running down the Sacramento River, and dead trout were everywhere, upside down, many on the bottom of pools, some floating. Under the rocks, the insect larvae were dead. Residents seemed confused but there was no doubt what was happening: A river was being murdered." (Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Examiner).

Early Monday morning some volunteer fireman realized the imminent danger and went from house to house warning folks around Dunsmuir and asking others to help spread information about what was happening. But for some these warnings came too late. Many residents living along the river had already become ill with symptoms that included headaches, shortness of breath, chest pains, rashes, dizziness, and vomiting. They filled local emergency rooms and doctors' offices. And the constant smell of sulfur hung in the air, a grim reminder of the trail of death in the river below.

Moving slowly, the plume had passed beyond Dunsmuir and reached Castle Crags State Park by Tuesday morning. Acrid vapors remained in the air, and local authorities continued to warn everyone away from the river. Officials just monitored the spill since there seemed to be no way to dam the poison or skim it off the surface. Metam sodium is water-soluble and it had mixed thoroughly with the river. "Once the material was in the water, under the circumstances that we had here, there was very little we could do to remove it."(Peter Bontadelli, director of Fish and Game).

Wednesday evening the green ooze had reached Lakehead and began to enter Lake Shasta. Its progress slowed to about one mile an hour as it started to sink when the colder river water mixed with the warmer lake. Interstate 5 was directly above the spill at that point and travelers were being warned by the Highway Patrol to "Roll up [their] windows, don't breathe, to drive like hell and don't stop" (Ron McCloud, Dunsmuir businessman).

By Friday evening most of the spill had entered the lake and formed a plume 18 feet thick, one hundred yards wide and three quarters of a mile long, lying 18 to 36 feet below the surface. An elaborate plan was devised: "Using an experimental aeration method, chemical spill specialists from the Southern Pacific railroad set up a ring of barges bearing heavy equipment that pumped air into the lake, sucked tainted water out and sprayed it into the air." (Sacramento Bee). This tentative system was somewhat successful in breaking up and dispersing the poison before it did any noticeable damage to Shasta's fish population or human vacationers.

By the first week in August things were pretty much back to normal. Southern Pacific had dismantled the barges and recreation vehicles and boats were allowed to return to the lakefront. Testing of the lake waters found toxic substances in only one out of 78 samples. There was hardly a trace in in the river, either. If it weren't for the 200,000 dead fish, three-hundred ill residents, and millions of dollars in damage and lost tourist business, one might not even know that California's largest inland water disaster had even happened.

Of the ten thousand disinfectants and pesticides registered for use in California, only 2,000 have been given the designation "hazardous" by the EPA, and metam sodium wasn't one of those. One would think that a product that kills all life forms should be considered extremely dangerous and therefore, hazardous; but as the post disaster discussion continued, what constituted hazardous became murkier and murkier. A week after the spill, a San Francisco Examinereditor called for the Dept. of Transportation to "look again at its definition of 'hazardous'. We suggest as a basic guideline: 'If a substance can wipe out an ecosystem, its a hazard' ".

Barbara Boxer used the House Government Operations subcommittee to investigate just how an accident of this magnitude could occur. The more she looked at the methods of risk assessment used by the EPA and the Dept. of Transportation, the more confused the whole issue became. The Coast Guard considered metam sodium extremely hazardous because it becomes poisonous when mixed with water, but the Dept. of Transportation didn't consider it a problem.

"When Boxer asked whether Don Clay (EPA official) might want to add the pesticide, metam sodium, to its list of hazardous chemicals if it killed people as well as fish, Clay replied: "The number of fish killed or the number of people killed is not the criterion we use". Boxer stared in disbelief, then said: "This is an outrage. I'm stunned". (Press Democrat).

The most startling bit of information to come out of these hearings was the under- reported testimony of Linda Fisher, EPA assistant administrator of pesticides and toxic substances. She admitted that the EPA had studies dating from 1987 that linked metam sodium with birth defects in lab animals. But the EPA hadn't bothered to read these reports since EPA policy required reviewers to "read only manufacturers summaries of studies on chemicals with potential adverse affects. Even if read, birth defects were not enough to warrant the hazardous chemical designation." (Press Democrat)

This one moment of candor conveys the enormity of our pesticide dilemma.

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