SAN FRANCISCO — Southern Pacific Transportation Co., seeking to mend frayed relations with Dunsmuir residents after a lethal spill decimated the town's summer tourist trade, has reimbursed some business owners for lost receipts, paid cash advances to others and agreed to foot the bill for a splashy ad campaign to help put tourism back on track.
"Southern Pacific is committed to the full restoration of the Dunsmuir area's economy and its image as a recreational destination," SP President Mike Mohan told reporters Thursday.
But the company was immediately rebuked by James M. Strock, head of the new California Environmental Protection Agency, who said in a harshly worded statement that the railroad's actions do not go far enough in helping Dunsmuir, in restoring the area's ecosystem or in reassuring Californians that toxic substances are being safely handled.
"Regrettably, Southern Pacific's public relations campaign has not addressed critical issues," said Strock, California's secretary for environmental protection. Among other suggestions, he urged the railroad to establish a trust fund to help restore the area's lost resources.
Speaking at SP's headquarters here, Mohan also put forth the company's preliminary view of what caused the July 14 derailment in which 13,000 gallons of the toxic chemical metam-sodium poured into the Sacramento River.
The accident, which killed plants and fish along a 45-mile stretch from Dunsmuir to Lake Shasta, was caused by "multiple and complex conditions," Mohan said.
As the 97-car train climbed a 2.2% incline and followed a 14-degree curve called the Cantara Loop, the momentary slippage of a wheel or wheels on at least one of the train's four locomotives apparently created stress that caused the cars "to attempt to straighten their forward motion," Mohan said.
Rail-car couplers near the front angled too sharply under the stress, and two empty 79-foot-long cars plunged into the river, dragging behind them the car carrying metam-sodium. A rock in the riverbed pierced the car in two places, and the chemical spilled out.
A possibly faulty electronic device governing how much horsepower gets to the wheels might have created a power surge that could have contributed to the wreck. Mohan said worker error has not been ruled out but is improbable.
He emphasized that SP's investigation is continuing. So are investigations by the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the California Public Utilities Commission.
Mohan said Southern Pacific has so far spent "in the low millions" to finish cleaning the site and to make payments to Dunsmuir residents. "The ultimate cost we neither know, nor can we estimate," he added. Among other steps, the company has established a community relations office in Dunsmuir, and has hired a San Francisco advertising firm to put together a campaign to promote Dunsmuir in ads in Northern California newspapers and outdoors magazines.
At least $2 million will be spent for a new bridge, Mohan said, the design of which will include berms that can help prevent derailments.
About $400,000 has been paid to 450 Dunsmuir residents to settle claims and provide cash advances to business owners whose livelihoods were affected.
Joe Kimsey, 62, co-owner of the town's Ted Fay Fly Shop, said the fly-fishing and river guide business had promised to be "a humdinger" until the spill. He expects that the destruction of the river's trout population will also cripple his business for at least four years.
Kimsey calculated his losses, "huddled with them (SP officials) for an hour, and then they wrote me a check," he said. He would not give a figure.
Dunsmuir Mayor Virginia Barham noted that other help arrived Thursday with the opening of a Small Business Administration office where residents can apply for low-interest loans.
"The railroad has always been a part of this town," she said of the 105-year-old community. Originally called Pusher, Dunsmuir was where extra steam engines were added in the old days to get trains over the grade.
Southern Pacific also has contracted to buy two years' supply of drinking water for its train crews from Dunsmuir, which bottles Shastine Springs water. Although the water does not come from the Sacramento River, sales have plummeted on fears that it, too, was tainted by the spill.