After a river's poisoning, bitterness is in the air


July 15, 1992|By E. A. Torriero | E. A. Torriero,Knight-Ridder News Service

DUNSMUIR, CALIF — DUNSMUIR, Calif. -- How do you celebrate a catastrophe?

Last weekend in this upper Sacramento River town, folks gathered to fry out-of-town fish because you can't catch the good-eating ones in what used to be one of the best fishing rivers in America.

At a picnic commemorating toxic disaster, residents complained of lingering maladies. The mayor blamed her impending recall vote on the fallout. And the debate over lawsuit settlements was silenced only by the noise of passing freight trains.

One year after a railroad car plunged into the river and dumped enough pesticide to kill water life for 40 miles, this rustic mountain community and its once-crystalline river are struggling to make comebacks.

"Boomerang," reads the marquee of the town's only theater, an apt feature presentation for a town trying to recapture its reputation.

With the help of an international public-relations firm and the Southern Pacific railroad, Dunsmuir is spending more than $100,000 to show it is alive and well, even as uncertainty lingers over the health of the river and local residents.

At first glance, there are few signs of damage to the river and Dunsmuir, population 2,500.

Insects, birds, algae and wildlife are returning to the river. Local boosters say the tourism industry is beginning to recover from the worst inland environmental disaster in state history. And Dunsmuir, 270 miles north of San Jose, still boasts of having the best drinking water on Earth -- but it doesn't come from the river.

"To look around here, you'd think nothing happened," said Kristi Osborn, a construction worker turned civic activist. "But then you look a little deeper and you see aftershocks everywhere. It's going to take years for this place to get back on its feet."

The dumping of as much as 19,000 gallons of the pesticide metam-sodium into the river on July 14, 1991, killed as many as 200,000 fish and fowl, sickened 800 people and sent a toxic cloud wafting as far south as Shasta Lake.

In the aftermath, Southern Pacific already has spent $5 million settling lawsuits and $3 million helping to clean up the mess. There are at least 20 major legal actions pending, and dozens of smaller ones. California Attorney General Dan Lungren filed a lawsuit Monday against Southern Pacific to recover more than $20 million needed to restore the region.

In and around the spill site, there is jockeying and posturing among residents, government agencies, environmentalists and fishing groups.

"It's turned this town into one big carnival," said Dennis Mullenix, one of several residents along River Avenue to blame their skin and sinus problems on the chemical spill. "You don't know who to trust or believe. Everyone has an agenda."

At times, the river is clogged with scuba divers -- state biologists, railroad representatives and local fishing experts -- competing for information. They monitor the river's rebirth down to counting the exact number of fish they find.

For more than a half-century, the upper Sacramento has been one of America's top trout streams. This year, the roughly 50,000 trout normally released here by state fishing officials have been dispersed elsewhere in the region. And it may be years before trout are again released into the river; the insect and food population first needs replenishment.

For now, the only trout fishing is not in the river but at two ponds outside Dunsmuir. A man-made air filtration system keeps the fish alive.

Many residents are still upset that Dunsmuir was not evacuated at the time of the spill. It was nearly 12 hours before many in Dunsmuir heard about the spill, long after toxic fumes had passed through.

Dozens of people say the accident has left them with continuing maladies, from nausea to skin rashes to sinus problems.

But some civic leaders and city officials accuse people of faking symptoms in hopes of receiving compensatory damages.

"Everything in the literature says it's a short-act thing, it shouldn't leave any residual health effects," says Mayor Virginia Barham, a registered nurse. "I think people are seeing big dollar signs."

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