A recent train derailment may threaten fish in a renowned California waterway. According to a “Hazardous Material Spill Update” from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, a freight train derailed along the Middle Fork of the Feather River on February 11, 2024.

“Fourteen total cars derailed,” explains the agency. “Several cars lost the total payload and some cars partially released. All cars were fully loaded with 118 tons of coal.”

Officials say that the cause of the derailment was a track defect. At least one of the railcars is still in the river. The total amount of coal that spilled into the waterway is still “unknown.” Contractors have been hired to assist with the cleanup.

The Middle Fork of the Feather River, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was one of the first nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. According to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, the Middle Fork “supports one of the best wild trout fisheries in California.” That said, the river has suffered in recent years. According to Cindy Noble, president of the Feather River chapter of Trout Unlimited, the recent train spill is not an isolated incident.

The Middle Fork of the Feather River has been threatened by environmental contamination before. Adobe Photostock.

“The sad part about this is [stuff like it] happens all the time here,” Noble tells Field & Stream. “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.”

According to a February 14 California Department of Fish and Wildlife Facebook post, the Environmental Protection Agency deployed an “on-scene coordinator and an emergency response program contractor” to the site of the incident.

“There have been no observed impacts to fish or wildlife and monitoring will continue,” explains the agency. “The [response team] will also be conducting water quality testing…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.”

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Still, Noble worried about potential impacts to the river and its fish. “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 says. “I don’t believe there is any kind of real ongoing cleanup effort.”