Friday, July 9, 2010

A Letter to Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature...About Serpentine!?!

I seriously can't believe that with all the crap going on in the California state legislature over the budget, which does in fact have a direct bearing on my employment, my school and my town, that I'm spending time on an issue that shouldn't have come up in the first place, but there it is: a group of people want to remove the designation of serpentine as our state rock. I understand their feelings about asbestos, but they are aiming for the wrong target. Serpentinite is a rock that sometimes has chrysotile asbestos in it. But not always. And chrysotile, while dangerous if it gets into the lungs as small particles, is not the most dangerous form of asbestos fibers. Those from the amphibole group are far more worse. And there are possible legal ramifications in this bill, which I am not qualified to discuss. But I find myself wondering why lawyers are on record supporting this "non-controversial" bill.

In any case, I have been trying for the last week to distill the arguments concerning this bill into a concise narrative that I can convey to the Assembly and to the governor. Yesterday's diary at Daily Kos was getting closer. The senate already passed the bill without a single dissenting vote a few weeks ago (UPDATE 7/10: this gets weirder and weirder. The Senate passed the bill last year, not a few weeks ago, but the bill they passed was about anaerobic compost. Then the entire language of the bill was swapped out in favor of the serpentine business. This is getting so fishy; Dan Walters at the Sacramento Bee is on the issue now, and I think he nails it). The bill is now in front of the Assembly and apparently to be voted on in the next few weeks. If you agree that this is a bad course of action, I would hope that you might consider getting involved. If you are on Twitter, try the hashtag #CAserpentine to see what others are doing. Or check out the geoblogosphere for recent news. I don't want to sound hopeless, but I wonder if these people even care what geologists and educators actually think. We aren't a very large or rich constituency. I guess there is the one way to find out. Here's my argument that I will be sending on paper (??!) this week:

To the Members of the California Senate and Assembly, and Governor Schwarzenegger:

The California legislature is about to strike an unfortunate blow at education. Senate Bill 624 would remove serpentine as the state rock of California, and furthermore would declare the rock to be dangerous to the health of state residents. I am a geology professor at a California community college, and a past president of the Far West Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT), and I strongly disagree with this legislative effort (the opinions presented below are my own, however, and not of my employer or the NAGT).

The bill and its analysis, contains several factual errors, and instead of being "noncontroversial" as one assemblyperson put it, may open up the state and residents to litigation, although I cannot speak to that issue with any legal expertise. Serpentine is not a “deadly” rock, at least not in the sense of being poisonous. It sometimes contains the fibrous mineral form called chrysotile asbestos, but chrysotile is just one of six different forms of asbestos. It is asbestos derived from the amphibole family of minerals that is proven to cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. Chrysotile may be implicated in some forms of cancer, but the link is not as clear-cut. Many other rocks and minerals can cause serious problems when inhaled as small fragments, including quartz and coal (dangers to the miners of these rocks are well-recognized). State laws have been crafted that deal with exposure to most of these materials. I am concerned that the legislature is making a statement of fact in this legislation without proper review by knowledgeable authorities and experts.

From an educational point of view, serpentine (or more properly, serpentinite) was an excellent choice for the state rock. It is relatively rare across the United States, but quite common in California. The original intent of the designation was to promote asbestos mining, and serpentine sometimes is a host rock for the fibrous mineral. But the educational value of the rock lies elsewhere

The source of the rock is deep in the earth's mantle, beneath the 15-25 mile thick crust, and its presence all over the state of California is a revelation and acknowledgement of the incredible forces that have shaped the state. California has the incredible scenery that it does because of forces of movements along plate boundaries, whether the lateral movements along the San Andreas fault, the vertical churning that occurs along convergent boundaries, where ocean crust is driven underneath the edge of the continent, or the splitting that occurs at the divergent boundary in the far south of the state.

The rock is also quite pretty, to this geologist's eye. It ranges in color from black to intense jade-green. The journey from deep in the crust to the surface along fault zones usually leaves beautiful polished surfaces on the rock.

When ultramafic rocks like serpentine are brought to the surface of the earth, they are far out of chemical equilibrium with the ambient conditions, which means they are easily attacked by oxygen, water and organic acids. Clay is a common product of this process, as well as red or yellow iron oxides. The surface layer resulting from this weathering process is of course soil. We tend to think of soil as a rich surface layer that supports plant life, but some soils lack the necessary nutrients for most kinds of plant growth. This is definitely the case for soils developed on serpentine, which lack nitrates, phosphorus, and potassium. To make things worse, chrome and nickel are actually toxins. Hence, only specialized species can thrive on these rocks. In California, there are many endemic species on serpentine soils found nowhere else on the planet.

These ultramafic rocks are fairly rich in a number of unusual metal ores, including platinum, nickel, magnesium and mercury. One of the most important ores is chromite, which is the only significant source we have for chromium, the metal that puts the "stainless" in stainless steel. We import most of the chromium that we need from foreign sources, but in wartime (especially the two World Wars), the ores were mined domestically, and a number of operations were present in California.

The bill was promoted by cancer and mesothelioma awareness groups. So far as I can tell, no one involved with the bill ever consulted with geologists or teachers.

I do not want to belittle the problem of asbestos, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. These are serious issues, but going after serpentine is misguided, and I believe it will actually hurt the effort to raise awareness of any links between the mineral and disease. The fracas going on today will be over, and in another month no one will remember the issue. But any child studying the state symbols over the coming decades will discover an interesting rock, but also the connection to asbestos and disease.

State Senator Gloria Romero, defending her sponsorship of a bill, was quoted as saying: "This bill is about raising awareness to protect the health of our citizens. Serpentine contains asbestos, a known carcinogen. Toxic materials have no place serving as emblems for the State." This statement is not really logical. Consider some analogies:

California Poppies, our state flower, contain some morphine and codeine, the raw materials for making heroin, an illegal drug. We might as well get rid of poppies as our state flower.

Gold miners, breathing the dust of quartz in the milling and crushing of gold ores, died by the score in the mines during the Gold Rush, the event that led to the establishment of the state. Native American groups could very well argue that the Gold Rush destroyed dozens of cultures and the celebration of gold as the state mineral is an insult to them. We might as well eliminate gold as our state mineral. And the ghost towns of Bodie and Calico should not be celebrated as the official ghost towns of the state, because many people died in the mines, by the logic presented above.

Grizzly bears killed hundreds and hundreds of Native Californians and Mexican-Americans in the early history of the state. We might as well remove the bear as our state mammal. It is extinct anyway.

State symbols are a means for promotion of state interests, and a tool for educating our students. Cancer support groups should be seeing the use of serpentine as our state rock as an opportunity to educate the public about the possible dangers of asbestos.

The state legislature is contemplating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I strongly urge the State Assembly to reject Senate Bill 624. I urge Governor Schwarzenegger to veto the bill if it is passed.


Garry F. Hayes
Professor of Geology


Andrew Alden, Oakland Geology blog said...

A strong and measured letter, Garry, worthy of your official weight. I hope you can get NAGT to back you up, but oddly enough this affair has come up during field season when nothing gets done.

Silver Fox said...

Oddly enough, indeed.

Anonymous said...

I feel like writing "What he said". In fact, I may.

Judith said...

Small editing point: why not leave out "Native Californians and Mexican-Americans" in the grizzly paragraph and just substitute "people."

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks Judith, I may do that. I used the phrase in the context of the early history of the state before many Europeans arrived. By the time of the Gold Rush, the bears were already in serious declline and disappearing. Or being killed in those crude bull/bear fights.

Anonymous said...

Small edit (technical correction) - grizzlies are not extinct if they no longer live in the wild in CA since they are part of the wildlife in many parts of N America. May be a relatively insignificant difference, but you would not want to participate in incorrect/inaccurate scientific statements when that is what you are partly combatting.

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks, anonymous! My understanding is that the California Grizzly was a subspecies, and thus is extinct, but your point is taken, they are certainly still around in Wyoming and Montana!