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Move to Send Debris to Owens Lake Hits Snag

June 24, 1989|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

Plans by the Southern Pacific railroad to dump 15,000 cubic yards of sodium bicarbonate into Owens Lake have run afoul of a group of Inyo County residents, who fear the sand-like material could be a health hazard.

Railroad officials said they are running out of places to take the sodium bicarbonate, which remains heaped in a residential area of San Bernardino where it spilled from a runaway freight train on May 12. It was mined from Owens Lake and destined for the Port of Los Angeles when the train jumped the tracks, killing four people.

Under pressure to clean up the spillage, Southern Pacific made plans to transport the sodium bicarbonate, also called trona, to Owens Lake and put it back in the hole where it came from. The trucks were set to roll Friday.

Then folks in the Owens Valley got wind of it.

Tainted Trona

"We're fighting this one hot and heavy," said Mike Ushman, who lives in the town of Keeler on the edge of the mostly dry Owens Lake bed. Ushman and fellow residents worry that the trona is tainted with diesel fuel from the train's locomotives and from incinerated metals and gasoline that rained over the wreckage when a nearby pipeline ruptured and caused an explosion 13 days after the derailment.

"We figure if the stuff was clean, they'd put it back on a train and send it on to their customer," Ushman said.

Other residents fear the dumping will add to the huge dust clouds kicked up off the lake bed by high winds common in Owens Valley, Inyo County Supervisor Paul Payne said.

Friday morning, Ushman and a dozen neighbors gathered beside Owens Lake, ready to protest the trona's arrival. But Southern Pacific already had been halted by another force--the State Lands Commission.

It seems the portion of the lake bed earmarked as a dump site is public land, leased by the mining company that shipped the trona. Consequently, railroad officials need a permit to put the stuff back where they got it, a commission spokesman said.

That may be no small feat. Southern Pacific's request will be considered at a meeting July 10, but if the trona's purity is suspect, some level of environmental review may be needed.

"We're trying to get the trona out of that neighborhood, but this has become a bureaucratic nightmare," Southern Pacific spokesman Robert Taggart said, noting that standards set by air and water quality also must be met.

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