Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It is Time for a Rational and Civil Discussion on Serpentinite: A Proposal

My Grandfather was a proud and hardworking man. When the dustbowl overwhelmed so many in Oklahoma, he moved the family to Texas, and in 1943, he brought them to California, in a time when crossing the Mojave desert in summer was still a dangerous journey. They broke down, spent nearly the last of their money to repair the car enroute, but made it to the Central Valley. He and my grandmother picked cotton in Visalia-Tulare for a few years, and eventually built a home in southern California. He tended to speak little, but had a dry humor that leaked out now and then. Sure, he had flaws (we probably all idealize our grandparents), but I remember him as a good and honorable man.

Besides farming an acre or two and running a small chicken ranch, he worked in a tile factory for 20 years. He's in the picture above, along with my grandmother. Almost every day he ran a mixer for dry mineral powders with no breathing apparatus. There very well could have been asbestos mixed in with the materal he worked with. Tiles often did at the time. And he smoked.

In retrospect, it is hardly a surprise that he developed lung cancer. Lung cancer is a horrific disease, and when I saw him for the last time, this proud man was curled in a fetal position, barely conscious, and filled with painkillers. He died a few short weeks later. It's no way to die.

You need to know this about my family heritage before speculating about my motives in arguing against the California Senate Bill 624 that would strip serpentine's status as the state rock. A group involved in this kerfuffle has quoted statements I made in my blog, but that does not mean I agree with their goals. I don't.

It's time to find some common ground. Some of the families affected by mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos feel insulted by the history that led to serpentine being established as the state rock in 1965. It must be acknowledged by all of us that supporters at the time emphasized serpentine as a source of asbestos, seen as a lucrative mineable natural resource. This is the history, and I have now seen it brought up a number of times as a defense for the "drop the rock" campaign. But times changed, and so did our understanding of the truly unique nature of serpentine and what it tells us about the earth's interior and history.

There are no longer any asbestos mines operating in California. And I don't know of a single educator who thinks asbestos is a wonder mineral that should be promoted by the state. But serpentine is not asbestos. It is a rock that sometimes contains a form of asbestos (chrysotile, in an asbestiform crystal habit). But for reasons discussed in many places across the geoblogosphere (good examples are here, here and here) serpentine is a unique rock that exemplifies the strange and wonderful geological processes that have formed the Sierra Nevada, the Klamath Mountains, and the Coast Ranges, as well as the unique biomes and endemic species of our state.

This has now become a national issue, and for a short time we have an opportunity to work together to accomplish something that is good:

I am proposing a resolution that could potentially be acceptable to all the parties in this controversy. At the very least, it needs to be a starting point for discussion. The legislature in 1965 made a factual error in the legislation. They made serpentine the state rock. But serpentine is a mineral (really a group of minerals). Serpentinite is the term used for the rock. Let us consider having the legislature correct their mistake by establishing serpentinite as the state rock. In this bill we could recognize the uniqueness of serpentinite, and it's role in the geological development of the state, the role it played as a source of many mineral ores, including chromite, cinnabar, magnesite, and yes, chrysotile asbestos, and the critically important role of serpentine soils in the development of dozens of endemic species. And...we could acknowledge the present state of knowledge concerning the health effects of exposure to the different forms of asbestos.

Why consider this idea? We geologists and educators were taken aback at the way this bill was presented in the legislature, with no input from anyone but a single constituency. The political ploy of passing a bill on anaerobic composting, and then replacing that bill with a totally different one just seems wrong. There is language in the present bill that has possible legal implications. There are denials and accusations. Let's remove the imprecise language so as to eliminate any doubt. Such language in the future needs to be vetted by objective legal experts.

State symbols promote the interests of the state, and provide a great opportunity for education. I explored this idea last year with a series of posts on many of our state symbols, and I enjoyed learning new things about my home state of California.

This is a teachable moment, and one that can lead to positive teaching outcomes for all of us for decades. If the present bill succeeds, there will be publicity (much of it derisive and negative; take a look at the comments in the NY times article) about asbestos for this week or this month. And then? Nothing. If we take this moment, to establish serpentinite as the state rock with a clear message of why, every child who does a project in the years to come about state symbols will learn about a fascinating and unique rock, and they will learn about asbestos at the same time.

I'm just a community college geology instructor who is caught up in what has become a national issue. It's time to talk... I'm not a legislator, I am not a lobbyist, but I am an educator. I don't like to pick fights. I want to resolve conflicts. And I have only words at my disposal.

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