A derailed train leaching large amounts of toxic materials into the environment close to a town with just a couple thousand residents. Fish and other aquatic life floating to the surface of nearby rivers, dead by the thousands. Complaints of headaches, rashes, and respiratory problems.
For Kit Marshall, these scenes from the wake of the Norfolk Southern train crash in East Palestine, Ohio, in early February are all too familiar. Because nearly three decades prior, it happened to the town she loved. On the night of July 14, 1991, a Southern Pacific train carrying potentially lethal chemicals derailed near Dunsmuir, Calif., and changed the town forever. Marshall, who was attending Stanford University 300 miles away at the time, was devastated as she watched the events unfold from afar. In East Palestine, she knew she was witnessing something similar.
“It was like deja vu,” Marshall said. “People that I’ve spoken with, they said that they were reliving the experience of being helpless and not knowing what was happening to them, and not knowing who could help.”
A routine train trip along the Sacramento River that fateful July night quickly turned deadly when a car carrying metam sodium, a water-activated pesticide, fell off the tracks along the Cantara Loop — a portion of track that includes a hairpin turn and had been the site of multiple previous derailments. After the car hit the water, it began leaking over 19,000 gallons of the pesticide, creating a toxic plume that spread down the river, as well as a hazardous cloud of gas that floated above the water.
At the time, the chemical’s impact on humans was unknown. But it became apparent quickly that the pesticide was deadly to fish, killing aquatic life en masse in one of the best-known trout fishing streams in California.
Jim Pedri, then the area’s supervising engineer for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, was part of the initial response team for the spill. He described visiting the river soon after the derailment, around 30 miles downstream from the location of the spill. Initially, he couldn’t see or smell any trace of the chemicals, when all of a sudden a “wall of fish” appeared in the river.
“These fish were just racing downstream, as fast as they could,” he said. “And 10 minutes later, we could smell the chemicals.”
Though some may have made it downstream to Shasta Lake, where the spill eventually became diluted, a retrospective count estimated that the incident killed over a million fish, as well as hundreds of thousands of willow, alder, and cottonwood trees. It also dealt a devastating blow to businesses in Dunsmuir that depended on fly fishing tourism.
Tom Hesseldenz, who was appointed executive director of the fish conservation group California Trout soon after the spill, was a member of a task force put together by then-Congressman Wally Herger, a Republican. While the state installed a large, derailment-proof guardrail to limit the impact of future incidents, Hesseldenz said most of the group’s conversations were focused on improving the state’s responses to hazardous material spills, rather than investigating systemic preventative measures.
Since the toxic accident, Hesseldenz said, cars continue to derail near the town but get little attention.
“There are derailments down in the canyon a few miles south of us that we don’t even hear about. A few cars go off the tracks, spill their contents, the contents aren’t hazardous, and the railroad cleans it up, and life goes on,” Hesseldenz said. “But the reality is still that there are a lot of derailments and it doesn’t seem like all the measures are being taken that could be taken to reduce the number of derailments.”
Dunsmuir residents were also spared the politicization that East Palestine has experienced. On the right, many 2024 Republican hopefuls have coalesced around the town of nearly 5,000 to criticize Democrats’ delay in visiting the site of the derailment. Meanwhile, left-leaning politicians have pointed to Trump-era rollbacks of railway safety regulations to indicate disingenuity within the Republican Party.
In response to the California spill, state politicians and officials on both sides of the aisle were focused on addressing residents’ needs. Those issues ranged from health concerns due to the hazardous cloud that swept over Dunsmuir in the hours following the derailment to economic support.
Cheryl Petty moved to Dunsmuir soon after the derailment, and said she watched the town rebuild itself. Many businesses that garnered most of their profit from the tourism industry were hit hard, with some closing. The critical factor that determined who thrived and who moved on, Petty said, was a willingness to adapt.
“Even though it was really hard for some people, for other people, they’re making fantastic money here,” Petty said. “That’s sort of the Dunsmuir ethos — it’s like the Wild West. Anything can happen.”
However, that rebuilding process took years.
A settlement between the state and federal governments and Southern Pacific wasn’t finalized until 1994, with a final payout of $38 million. The 41 miles of river affected by the spill took just under two years to repopulate itself, according to Pete Bontadelli Jr., then-director of the state’s Department of Fish and Game. For a long time, residents were concerned about the potential long-term health effects of the gas cloud, after some early research pointed to a high rate of miscarriages in the area — though that relationship was never officially attributed to the spill, and the study had a small sample size.
The overall toll the spill took on the town — economically, physically, and emotionally — is difficult to quantify, but over 30 years later, the 1991 derailment still hangs over the heads of Dunsmuir residents. Those who lived in the town at the time have never forgotten, and children who were born years after the spill have grown up hearing their stories.
For Marshall, who moved back to Dunsmuir seven years ago, the similarities between the events in her town and East Palestine inspired her to reach out. As a co-owner of Castle Rock Water Co., she saw an opportunity to send fresh drinking water to residents in East Palestine amid concerns about water contamination. Last week, the company sent 780 pallets of bottled water on the 2,500-mile journey from California to Ohio with support from the Dunsmuir community.
The donation, Marshall said, was a chance to tangibly help residents of East Palestine. But more than that, she saw an opportunity to show those affected by the spill that at least one other town has been through something similar — and won’t forget about them, even when the derailment has exited the media cycle.
“Take somebody’s hand if needed. Because I think it’s gotten so disparate, and it’s harder to connect with other people,” Marshall said. “It’s critical that we keep it in our mind.”