Derailed Train Spills Dozens Of Tons Of Coal Into Beloved California River

Source: Facebook/Office of Spill Prevention and Response

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services released a series of ‘Hazardous Material Spill Updates’ over the past week regarding a train derailment that resulted in dozens of tons of coal spilling into Feather River – one of the state’s hottest spots for catching wild trout. Let’s get you caught up on what went down and what it means for the river.

Coal Train Derailment: Who, What, When, Where, Why

The freight train was operated by Union Pacific, and the derailment occurred at around 6:45 a.m. on February 11 at the Middle Fork of the Feather River in Plumas County, California. No one was injured, but stockpiles of coal were lying in and around the body of water – and surrounding land.

Source: Darwin Carozza from Getty Images via Canva

Earlier reports indicated that 14 of the train’s railcars derailed, but later reports confirmed there were 15 of them – three of which were lying in the river. Officials confirmed that a track defect caused the cars to flip over and onto their sides. Cleanup and mitigation efforts are ongoing.

The Railroad Cars Were Holding 118 Tons Of Coal

The cleanup is what had most Californians worried – and that’s because the freight train was carrying 118 tons of coal. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services hasn’t disclosed the exact amount of coal that ended up in the river, but they’ll release those numbers eventually.

Source: Adam88xx from Getty Images Pro via Canva

In a Facebook post, California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) confirmed there haven’t been any ‘observed impacts to fish or wildlife,’ but they’ll continue to monitor the situation in the coming days, weeks, and months.

Local And State Agencies Collaborating On Investigation

The investigation is being directed by a ‘Unified Command (UC)’ that consists of representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR). The investigation began on Feb. 11 and is ongoing.

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“EPA deployed an on-scene coordinator and an emergency response program contractor to the site of the train derailment,” the OSPR wrote on Facebook. “The UC will also be conducting water quality testing. All ongoing environmental data collected will be reviewed by state and federal personnel on-scene.”

Cleanup, Mitigation, and Repairs Are Underway

Two of the three railcars in the river were removed within the first few days of the investigation. By Feb. 13 (two days after the incident), the railroad track was repaired, inspected, and back to doing what it does best. Meanwhile, cleanup and mitigation efforts continue.

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“Land-based remediation has begun, and best management practices have been implemented to keep coal from migrating any further. Efforts to remove derailed cars, as well as in-river remediation, will continue until all federal and state agency requirements are met,” OSPR added – confirming that the third railcar is still in the river.

Efforts Were Delayed Due To Winter Storm

The derailment occurred at the wrong time of the year – just as winter storms ravaged their way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The storms caused a brief delay in the cleanup process, but crews returned to work on Feb. 22, according to a report by the Sierra Daily News.

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The outlet also reported that they don’t expect any road closures as work continued, but urged residents to take a different route to work – allowing trucks, equipment, and trailers to move around as needed. A majority of the coal has already been removed by rail for disposal, but they’re not done yet.

President Of Trout Unlimited Criticizes Cleanup Efforts

Cindy Noble, the President of Trout Unlimited (Feather River chapter), was critical of the cleanup efforts – which she described as a half-hearted cleanup. She hopes more is done in the near future, but doesn’t feel like Union Pacific will do enough to protect the land and river.

Source: Flickr/John Benner

“The railroad company says there will be a cleanup—but what they’re doing is cleaning up the railroad but not the stuff that gets dumped in a river,” she said in an interview with Field and Stream.

Water Contamination Is Common At Feather River

Noble went on to say that this is (and has been) a regular occurrence at Feather River. “The sad part about this is [stuff like it] happens all the time here,” she said – and she isn’t wrong. Just last year, the Environmental Working Group (a non-profit) found high levels of PFAS toxins in fish along Feather River.

Source: Flickr/Milantram

“PFAS contamination of freshwater fish not only poses risks to fish health but also creates environmental justice concerns for the communities that rely on those fish for their diets, since they are being exposed to PFAS when they consume the fish,” the EWG wrote in 2023.

Is Coal Dangerous For Wildlife and Marine Life

I know what you’re thinking – isn’t coal a natural resource? While that is true, that doesn’t mean it won’t affect marine life – especially when exposed to high concentrations of it, like with the train derailment. Local officials say it might not have a short-term effect, but the long-term effect could be dire.

Source: photographer3431 from Getty Images Signature via Canva

“When small pieces of coal spills out of the car into the river, it can cover up any kind of aquatic life there is,” Noble said last week – adding that she doesn’t ‘believe there is any kind of real ongoing cleanup effort’ going on currently.

Feather River Is One Of California’s Best Wild Trout Fisheries

The Feather River is made up of four tributary forks (Middle, North, West, and South) that feed into Lake Oroville. The Middle Fork tributary (where the derailment occurred) is roughly 100 miles long and is responsible for draining more than 1,000 square miles of the Sierra Nevada range.

Source: Flickr/Leslie Schaaf

Those who like to fish for trout are all too familiar with Feather River – after all, it’s known as one of the best wild trout fisheries in the state. Fishing is open year-round, with fly fishing being the most popular. In addition to trout, you can find steelhead, Chinook salmon, striped bass, and shad along Feather River.

Middle Fork Has A Historic Element To It

As for Middle Fork, it’s one of the more historical rivers in California. In 1968, it was one of 12 originally designated rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Today, nearly 80 miles of the Middle Fork tributary are classified as either wild, scenic, or recreational.

Source: Flickr/Forest Service, USDA

That’s why so many people – Cindy Noble, for example – are so adamant about treating the river with respect. It’s not just a source of fish – it’s a source of adventure with some of the most beautiful canoe and kayak trails in California.

Another Massive Coal Spill Occurred In Nebraska

Earlier this month, a large freight train suffered a similar accident along Highway 2 in Hall County, Nebraska – roughly 100 miles west of Lincoln, NE. There wasn’t a river involved – which is a good thing – but it saw 57 railcars dump coal around the surrounding area.

Source: designbydx from Getty Images via Canva

There were several engines involved, but it was unclear what caused the derailment. Luckily, no one was injured, and the mess was eventually cleaned up.

Union Pacific Train Derails Gothenburg, Nebraska

Another coal train derailment occurred in Nebraska even more recently. The accident was reported in Gothenburg, Nebraska – about 100 miles west of the Hall County derailment – and involved more than two dozen rail cars filled with coal.

Source: PhilAugustavo from Getty Images Signature via Canva

Again, no river was involved and no injuries were reported, but cleanup began immediately as large equipment made their way to the site. They repaired one of the tracks and had it back up and running roughly six hours later.

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Ryan Handson

Written by Ryan Handson

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