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Southern Pacific Apologizes for River Spill

July 21, 1991|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

REDDING, Calif. — Southern Pacific issued a public apology Saturday for its catastrophic pesticide spill in the Sacramento River as work crews began bubbling the poisonous chemical to the surface of Shasta Lake in the hope it will dissipate more quickly.

Facing a crowd of more than 400 angry residents, railroad officials tried to shift blame for the spill to federal regulations that they contend prevented them from taking sufficient precautions when hauling the toxic weed killer.

"Southern Pacific and the 10,000 California employees that we have in our company are deeply sorry this happened," Bob Starzel, vice chairman of Southern Pacific, said at a legislative inquiry into the disaster. "We could not believe that this combination of events, defying the odds, could end up with this kind of problem."

During the emotion-charged hearing, another railroad official revealed that the company did not require drug or alcohol testing of crew members after the train derailed Sunday night, dumping up to 19,000 gallons of toxic metam-sodium into the river.

Company spokesman Larry Phipps said the company routinely tests the crew in accidents when damage exceeds $500,000. In this spill, the initial estimate was below that amount, although officials now predict that the spill is going to cost millions of dollars. "At the time, we didn't see the downriver damage," he said.

Residents who packed the meeting hall frequently interrupted the testimony with pointed questions and shouts of outrage. Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run), who chaired the hearing, accused the railroad company of "hiding behind regulations."

At the same time, state officials gave Southern Pacific the green light to begin the first attempt at cleaning up the pesticide mess since the spill occurred nearly a week ago.

Department of Fish and Game officials said late Saturday that crews had begun pumping air bubbles under the toxic plume in Shasta Lake--even though tests of the aeration process were not carried out as planned.

The purpose is to reduce the level of the pesticide in the lake by bringing the chemical up to the surface, where it is supposed to decompose more quickly. To keep vapors under control, crews will constantly spray the spill with clean water.

"Once we fire this aeration up, we are going to continue with it either until we aren't doing any good, or we're through," said Richard Elliott, a Department of Fish and Game official who is commander of the cleanup team, which includes 50 government agencies.

As the poison has traveled down the pristine Sacramento River and into Shasta Lake--killing all aquatic life along the way--officials have been frustrated with their inability to halt the flow of the chemical.

Experts continue to emphasize that the poison does not pose a threat to drinking water, but they are increasingly concerned that it could harm endangered Chinook salmon that spawn below Shasta Dam.

"Certainly, public health and safety is still first and foremost, but we recognize the urgency to get on with something," Elliott said in an interview. "We don't want this plume to get away from us in the lake."

The new California Environmental Protection Agency initially blocked the cleanup plan Friday because of concern the toxic fumes could endanger the health of people in the area. The agency insisted that the system be tested on a small portion of the plume because such a scheme has never been tried before with this chemical.

But on Saturday, state officials abandoned the testing plan and decided to go ahead with the bubbling operation as long as there was constant monitoring of air quality in the area, Elliott said. Officials hope that spraying the plume with water will minimize the danger of toxic fumes to people.

"If we start aerating and get large concentrations of toxics in the air, that means the aeration is working," he said. "We're doing a good job because we're getting it out of the lake. But again, that compounds the public health and safety issue."

The largest group of people near the site of the toxic plume now are motorists traveling on Interstate 5, which winds close to the northern end of the lake. Elliott said he hopes the aeration operation can be conducted without closing the highway.

Residents of the area are bitter about the spill, which drove many from their homes. Some also have been angry at state officials for closing I-5 on Monday, keeping customers away from businesses along the lake and river.

Such anger was evident at the public hearing in Redding as members of the audience shouted objections to explanations offered by government officials and Southern Pacific.

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