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State Sues Railroad for Pesticide Spill in Sacramento River : Pollution: Southern Pacific calls multimillion-dollar suit unnecessary because it has agreed to pay all appropriate costs.

July 14, 1992|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Accusing Southern Pacific of "unlawful conduct and negligence," Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Monday seeking to recover damages for the pesticide spill that devastated the Upper Sacramento River a year ago today.

Although the full extent of harm to the river ecosystem may not be known for years, state officials said the destruction of wildlife--and the cost of calculating the damage--could easily total more than $30 million.

"We have never seen an inland spill which has had such severe natural resource damage as this one," said Douglas Wheeler, state secretary of resources. "Some of the ecosystem will not recover."

Southern Pacific officials protested that the lawsuit was unnecessary because the company has agreed to pay all appropriate costs for the spill and has shelled out more than $12 million to pay a variety of government and private claims.

Southern Pacific also accused the state of slowing the recovery of the river by refusing help from the railroad. Company general counsel Cannon Y. Harvey said the attorney general's office had prohibited Southern Pacific experts from meeting with state scientists to discuss what could be done.

"Southern Pacific set out to establish a cooperative working relationship with the state," Harvey said. "It appears the state is more interested in maximizing damage claims and assessment costs than in effecting a prompt recovery."

The spill occurred on the evening of July 14 last year when a Southern Pacific train derailed north of the riverbank town of Dunsmuir, dumping 19,990 gallons of the pesticide metam-sodium into the river renowned for its trout.

The poison killed virtually all aquatic life along a 42-mile stretch of the river, drove birds and mammals from the area, and killed or damaged many trees and shrubs. A vapor cloud that moved downriver also caused about 700 people in Dunsmuir to become ill.

The river is recovering faster than many experts expected, as algae, insects, fish and land animals return to the damaged waterway. But Wheeler said the state is sticking to its early estimate that it could take 50 years for a full comeback, including the replacement of mature trees killed by the chemical.

Since the catastrophe, Dunsmuir and other communities along the Upper Sacramento have suffered a substantial loss in tourism, particularly with a ban on fishing in the river that could last until 1994. Nearly half of the $12 million paid out by the railroad company has gone to affected business and residents.

"No one regrets the spill on the Sacramento River last year more than those of us at Southern Pacific," Harvey said. ". . . Southern Pacific has never denied its financial responsibility."

In addition to the railroad company, the suit seeks to recover damages from AMVAC Chemical Co. of Los Angeles, the manufacturer of the metam-sodium, and General American Transportation Corp. of New York, the owner and maker of the tank car carrying the pesticide.

Despite Southern Pacific's pledge to pay its share of damages, Lungren said the lawsuit was necessary to ensure that the people of California receive full compensation for the spill and does not prevent a negotiated settlement.

The suit was filed on the last day possible before a one-year statute of limitations expired on some of the 15 civil counts. No criminal charges were filed.

"It is only fair to acknowledge the efforts of Southern Pacific," the attorney general said. "The railroad has taken a number of steps to assist the impacted communities in their economic recovery. . . Our objective is not to seek to transform a major source of California jobs into an evil villain."

Although the cause of the disaster has not been pinpointed, Southern Pacific has received criticism for placing the tank car in the middle of the train and not using more engines to push it through the river canyon.

Harvey said the reason for the derailment may never be known, but denied the state's charge that the company acted unlawfully. "We do not believe we were negligent in the way we operated that train or configured that train," he said.

The railroad attorney asserted that the river's recovery would have been faster with the involvement of Southern Pacific. In particular, he said, the state has moved too slowly on a plan to catch wild trout in tributaries, breed them and place the offspring in the river.

State officials have devoted most of their resources to the detailed assessment of damage that has cost $3 million--and is likely to top $10 million by the time it is done.

Both sides refused to put a dollar figure on the total damage, but Wheeler said he expected that the loss of wildlife will prove to be in the "tens of millions."

Harvey said he hoped that the final tab--including clean-up efforts, health claims and lost income for businesses--would total far less than $50 million. "I don't think this is going to put us out of business," he said.

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