Feather River train derailment raises new concerns

Spilled corn covers a hillside in the Feather River canyon where a derailment left Union Pacific freight cars piled like fallen dominoes.
Spilled corn covers a hillside in the Feather River canyon where a derailment left Union Pacific freight cars piled like fallen dominoes. Special to The Bee

The Feather River north of Sacramento serves as a life source for California, providing drinking water to millions of residents as far south as Los Angeles and helping irrigate nearly 1 million acres of farmland. To accomplish its task, the river first runs a gantlet – snaking through a steep canyon in the shadows of a busy freight rail line with a history of derailments.

The river’s precarious position was highlighted again last month when nearly a dozen cars from a derailed corn train tumbled down the mountain, splitting open and spilling kernels and husks into the river.

Although cleanup efforts could last weeks, the environmental impact appears to be mild, state officials said, with no reported fish kills and only minimal water-quality impact.

“Luckily, corn is pretty much inert, a low-threat material,” said George Day, senior engineer with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Most of the corn landed on the hillside above the river. But the incident rang alarm bells. State and local officials note that the train easily could have been one of those that now carry 100 cars of crude oil, or other hazardous substances, through the canyon.

The numbers of crude oil trains entering the state via mountain passes and river canyons is expected to jump substantially in the next two years as coastal refineries lay plans to buy as much as 22 percent of the state’s imported oil from burgeoning fields in North Dakota, Canada, Colorado, Texas and other states.

Already, one all-crude-oil train rolls through the Feather River Canyon weekly, passing through Sacramento on its way to the Bay Area, and another train began regular runs in November along the Sacramento River past Dunsmuir and Redding en route to Kern County.

Nationally, train shipments of crude oil have more than tripled in the last four years, federal data show. Several explosive derailments, including one that killed 47 people last year in a Canadian town, have prompted federal officials to rewrite federal regulations on train car safety standards and other rail safety features.

While much of the ongoing crude-by-rail safety debate in Sacramento has focused on the potential for an oil spill in an urban area, the early morning spill on Nov. 25 in the Feather River Canyon underscores the more likely scenario of a derailment in remote rural terrain, harming wildlife and fouling drinking water.

“This easily could have been 11 cars of ... crude,” said Plumas County Emergency Services Director Jerry Sipe. “The environmental consequences could be substantial.”

Unlike corn, oil could flow with the river for miles, killing wildlife along the way, and making the water unusable for months or years, said Day, the water-quality engineer. “Oil sticks around. It adheres to rocks. It could last.”

A derailment and chemical spill outside Dunsmuir in 1991 obliterated wildlife in the Sacramento River for 40 miles. Day said it took three years before vegetation was restored and fish had repopulated.

For some key players, the corn spill served as a bracing practice run.

“We used it as an opportunity to test what we believe we are going to need to do in an oil spill, to get some folks some real experience,” said Alexia Retallack, spokeswoman for the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which coordinated with Union Pacific, the track owner, on cleanup.

Crews threw booms into the river downstream to capture and vacuum up floating corn and husks, the same maneuver they would use to corral floating oil. UP workers pulled the derailed cars out of the canyon and vacuumed corn off the slope. The company repaired the line and reopened it that same day. Sipe, the Plumas County official, said UP likely will have divers out this week to vacuum corn from the river bottom.

UP officials said the cause of the derailment, which took place near Rich Bar Road and Highway 70, is under investigation. Paul King, a rail safety official with the state Public Utilities Commission, said federal officials have told him the cause appeared to be a broken rail.

Retallack said the state spill-prevention office plans a meeting when the work is done at which emergency responders can share perspectives on what went well and what needs to be improved.

In response to the spill, UP spokesman Aaron Hunt said, the railroad is “increasing our track inspections in the Feather River Canyon with advanced scanning equipment that uses ultrasound waves. We are currently following standard operating procedure by operating trains at slower speeds as we remediate the incident site.”

The spill prompted Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, last week to call on Gov. Jerry Brown to place a moratorium on the transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials on trains “through our most treacherous passes” until the state can ensure that public health and the environment are protected.

Hill represents San Bruno, where a neighborhood was devastated when a natural gas pipeline exploded in 2010. Had last month’s derailment resulted in a spill of oil, he said, it could have caused serious contamination in Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir.

“This incident serves as a warning alarm to the state of California,” Hill wrote in a letter to the governor.

Federal regulations typically preempt states from imposing their own restrictions on railroads, investing the federal government with almost all regulatory authority. The railroads recently sued California over its insistence that the railroads submit spill prevention and cleanup plans to the state.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the state needs to work with the railroads to ensure safer shipments.

“These trains are going to come through,” Ghilarducci said. “We need to work together with the industry to put every safety precaution possible in place.”

In Plumas County, Sipe said he hopes local responders can get funding from the state, the federal government or the railroads for oil spill response equipment and training. He said that might include stockpiles of booms to contain floating oil, and pads to absorb the oil at strategic points.

“Sacramento is three hours away,” he said. “We are going to be dealing with it on our own the first few hours.”

Sipe said he also hopes the spill will prompt UP to forge a closer working relationship with local officials.

“As soon as we get through this incident,” he said, “that is the (phone) call we will have.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.