Responders prepare for oil train wreck in Feather River Canyon

This railroad crosses the Feather River on a series of bridges. Railroad trestles as old as a century make the rail line one of the sites at greatest risk for accidents in the state.
This railroad crosses the Feather River on a series of bridges. Railroad trestles as old as a century make the rail line one of the sites at greatest risk for accidents in the state. Bee Correspondent

State wildlife officials are preparing to respond to what many consider all but inevitable: an oil-train accident in the Feather River Canyon, a 70-mile rail route along a major source of drinking water for the state.

It’s been nearly two years since the last derailment along the winding mountain rail line between Oroville and Quincy, but a network of responders trained to care for oil-soaked wildlife is not taking any chances.

Last month they moved an emergency-response trailer to Oroville with supplies for treating mountain lions, coyotes, birds and other animals caught in oil spilled from a railroad tank car.

The action came after officials working with the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response team visited the entire length of the Feather River Canyon to evaluate the potential for setting up wildlife recovery gear. Their assessment produced a list of sites that could be used as staging areas for their 20-foot mobile animal hospital.

An increase in trains transporting crude oil nationwide has raised the potential for accidents, making the impacts on wildlife a much bigger issue than they once were, said Kyra Mills-Parker, deputy director of field operations for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network based in Davis.

Her group works closely with the Spill Prevention and Response office, which was created after the 1990 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Designed to coordinate the response to accidents involving oil, in 2014 the mandate expanded from marine waters along the California coast to all statewide waters at risk of oil spills from any source, including pipelines and shipments of oil transported by railroads.

Mills-Parker and a team with the spill prevention office are developing plans for getting equipment in and injured animals out of the Feather River Canyon. Along with steep terrain and limited road access, limited cellphone reception is a major challenge.

“Communication is such a huge part of a successful recovery response,” she said.

The Feather River Canyon is a low-elevation transportation corridor from the northern Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento Valley routing trains and autos along the sinuous contours carved by the river. The railroad, completed in 1910, and the two-lane highway, built in the 1930s, swap sides, crossing the river on a series of bridges. Railroad trestles as old as a century make this rail line one of the sites at greatest risk for accidents in the state.

The water itself is part of the State Water Project, providing drinking water to millions of residents as far south as Los Angeles and helping irrigate nearly 1 million acres of farmland. Contamination from an oil spill would affect millions of people throughout California, said Greg Hagwood, the Plumas County sheriff and director of emergency services.

“From commerce to wildlife and water quality, this canyon ranks high in just about every conceivable risk category,” he said.

Oil spills have been a concern nationally since a dramatic surge in production in oil fields in the Midwest and Canada increased the volume from about 10,000 railroad tank cars in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. That year several 100-car trains of volatile oil traveled through the Feather River Canyon and midtown Sacramento to the Bay Area.

Those shipments stopped late last year, but wildlife officials remain wary. They are working with BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad officials on plans for how to best collect oil-coated species, provide immediate treatment and transport them to places where they can recover.

In the event of a major spill, state wildlife responders would call on trained volunteers for assistance. North Valley Animal Disaster Group, based in Chico, is closest to the Feather River Canyon among the 30 member organizations statewide working with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

North Valley is the first inland organization to work with the state. Around 10 of its volunteers have been trained to assist in caring for wildlife affected by an oil spill, said Debbie Silcox, a state employee who has responded to coastal spills.

Other members of the network include universities, scientific researchers and animal care groups, Mills-Parker said.

Plumas County officials are aware of the potential for disaster in the Feather River Canyon, Hagwood said. Accidents have mounted with the increase in the number of trains transporting oil around the country. A 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, haunts firefighters across the continent. The fire and detonation of multiple tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.

Two recent decisions by California communities have at least temporarily quashed rail company plans to increase the amount of oil-train traffic in California. The Benicia City Council rejected a proposal by Valero Refining Co. that would have allowed it to receive oil from two 50-car trains daily on rail lines through the Feather River watershed and downtown Sacramento.

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission rejected a request by Phillips 66 Co. to build a facility at its Nipomo Mesa refinery that would allow it to receive oil shipments via three trains a week, some of which likely would have traveled through Sacramento and other Northern California communities.

Hagwood, the Plumas sheriff, is not counting on these political decisions to keep his community safe. To increase local protections, Plumas County acquired an oil spill trailer and positioned it along Highway 70 at Rogers Flat for quick deployment in the Feather River Canyon. Along with firefighting foam, the equipment includes 1,200 feet of booms used to contain an oil spill. Using funds from a railroad accident settlement, Hagwood and other emergency responders recently held an on-site exercise to test both equipment and training needs.

The county is much better prepared and its personnel better trained than even six months ago, Hagwood said, “but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel completely prepared.”

Wildlife emergency responders may also mount a full deployment drill in the Feather River Canyon, Mills-Parker said. That would give staff and volunteers an opportunity to test equipment and emergency access systems.

“This is one of the most challenging geographic areas we’ve encountered. We’re still in the infancy of deciding what to do,” Mills-Parker said.