Sunday, August 1, 2010

Serpentine: An Update on the State Rock Debate in California

(Update: I've removed the original first paragraph of this post. I wrote it in response to a post elsewhere that has since been removed. The discourse needs to stay civil if anything is to be accomplished. I've hoped to map out a way to work together as opposed to arguing)

Call this an update about where things stand with Senate Bill 624, sponsored by State Senator Gloria Romero, which would remove serpentine as California’s state rock. Unfortunately I do not have direct knowledge of where any legislators stand on this issue. Please let me know if you hear of any public support or opposition by Assembly members. Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro of the 1st District was quoted as saying “…it’s symbolic and has very little benefit to the public and I think particularly with all of the other things the state is facing, it’s a real question”. He ended up voting for the bill in committee, but those are not the words of a strong supporter. If my understanding of the convoluted history of the bill is accurate, it has only received a total of seven votes, those of the members of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee (Chesbro, Gilmore, Brownley, De Leon, Hill, Huffman, Logue). News reports and media releases saying that the bill unanimously passed the State Senate with the current language are wrong. The bill labeled 624 that passed the Senate was about legal language concerning composting. The language in the original bill was swapped out after the vote (“gutted and amended”), and the serpentine language inserted instead. That should mean that if the bill passes the Assembly, it ought to be returned to the Senate…unless there is something very wrong with the way business is conducted in Sacramento. The Assembly Analysis is not clear on the matter. The Assembly and Senate return to session on August 2, and will be wrapping up business by August 31st. If we are to have any influence on the bill, we must contact our legislators within that time frame. Paper letters are best, phone calls are effective, and e-mails are ok, but less influential. If the bill should somehow pass, messages will need to be sent to the governor. He will have until September 30 to sign or veto the bill.

The controversy that has erupted over the bill in newspapers and websites throughout the state of California and across the nation speaks of a need to have a dialog with all of the interested parties involved with the issue. Geologists, biologists, historians, mineral collectors and teachers have raised objections over the bill, based both on the scientific inaccuracies in the bill itself, and whether there are legal implications that have not been fully explored or vetted by objective legal experts. As an educator who has worked for years teaching about serpentine, I have great concerns about what this bill would do to education and scientific awareness, whether the subject is geology, biology, botany, or public health. For this reason, I am hoping that Senator Romero will simply withdraw this bill from further consideration.

The issue of raising awareness of asbestos and the role it has in causing lung cancer and mesothelioma was the stated reason for the bill. As I read editorials from across the state (see the excellent compilation by Silver Fox at Looking for Detachment, or check my incomplete list below), the only message in the media seems to be that many scientists and teachers object to the bill because of the inaccurate scientific language, and that there are more important problems faced by the state of California. The bill will not save anyone from getting mesothelioma. The bill makes no provision for increasing awareness about asbestos and mesothelioma. In fact, if the bill passes, any "awareness" will evaporate. As I have said in nearly all of my public statements, serpentine is a rock with a rich history that is both fascinating and tragic: there is the role the rock played in the Gold Rush, its role in geological research about the Earth’s mantle and in crustal processes, the many different kinds of unique minerals that have been mined from it, and the many unique endemic plant species that grow on serpentine and nowhere else in the world. Every child doing a project on state symbols in coming decades will discover these facts about serpentine, including the fact that it sometimes contains asbestiform fibers which in industrial settings can cause serious disease. If this bill passes, the learning opportunity will be lost. I would hope that we can find common ground and consensus about how to best educate the public about serpentine and its relationship to the residents of California. An example of an alternate legislative effort might be a call from the state of California to ban the industrial use of asbestos in the United States. This would put the spotlight on the health effects of asbestos, and off of a rock that is basically harmless in a natural setting.

Several years ago Senator Romero found a rather Solomon-like solution to a controversy over another state symbol. The issue was whether Bodie or Calico should represent the state’s history as an official ghost town. Instead of picking one town over another, Senator Romero found a way to designate a state gold ghost town, and a state silver ghost town. Mining has always been a messy business with a checkered history of environmental effects and pollution problems. But she clearly recognized at the time that there was value in understanding the history of mining in the state, in both its positive and negative aspects. I am hoping Senator Romero will adopt a similar insightful stance in the present controversy over the use of the rock serpentinite as a symbol of the uniqueness of California’s geologic landscape.

Andrew Alden, Justin Zzyzx, Silver Fox, Jon Christiansen, Nishanta Rajakaruna, Malcom Ross, Eldridge Moores, and many others have been working hard to publicize this issue. I am hearing that numerous concerned scientists, researchers, and interested citizens are contacting their legislators, and that the issue is becoming well-known among legislative staffers. Your actions are having an effect! As the story fades in the media, the real work begins in the offices of the Senators and Assembly members. They are hearing your concerns (as well as the press releases of those lobbying for the bill’s passage). Keep up the good work!

This is a partial listing of some of the many stories on the issue that have run in newspapers, radio and television across the country, and even internationally:

7/9: Dan Walters: California state-rock bill has serpentine agenda, Sacramento Bee,

7/12: California Legislature Considers Throwing Out State "Rock", Ronald Bailey,,

7/13: Outcry as State Rock Toppled, Annette Fuentes, The Bay Citizen

7/13: Romero takes on a deadly rock, Paradise Post editorial, Rick Silva

7/13: Pasadena Star News (Dan Walters article)

7/14: California May Drop Its Official State Rock, Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

7/14: The Buzz: 'Geoblogosphere' atwitter about state rock Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Torey Van Oot

7/15: Calif may dump 'state rock' that contains asbestos: (Trevor Hunnicutt AP), Google
(This Associated Press story ran in dozens of major newspapers across the nation, a few examples below)

MSNBC Associated Press report
CBS news, AP report

Huffington Post

7/16: California State Rock May Lose its Honored Status (Video, KCBA News, Monterey, Santa Cruz)

7/16: Californian health lobby sets sights on state rock, Guy Adams, The Independent, UK

7/16: Geologists protest bill to remove state rock, Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle,

7/17: My Word: Rocky stance on serpentine status as state rock (editorial by Brandon Schwab, Humboldt State geologist, Times Standard of Eureka

7/17: Political call to 'defrock the rock' New Zealand Herald, Guy Adams of the Independent, UK,

7/17: Robert Rector: A pet rock bill and other pebbles of wisdom Pasadena Star News

7/18: Our Opinion: Between a rock and a hard place, Imperial Valley News,

7/20: California May Defrock Its Rock Because It Contains Asbestos, Bonnie Hulkower,

7/20: California’s Great De-Rocking Debate, editorial, New York Times

7/21: In Defense of a Rock, Nicholas Neely, High Country News,

7/21: Serpentine: State rock no more? Asbestos may cost "incredibly cool rock" its lofty status Anthony Skeen, The Daily Triplicate, Crescent City

7/23: Legislator wants to roll California's official rock, James Gardner, San Francisco Business Times,

7/25: Between a rock and a hard place: California’s rock debate, Patt Morrison, Southern California Public Radio, includes podcast)

7/27 The irrational fear of our state rock, David Ropeik, Los Angeles Times,,0,6050134.story


Gaelyn said...

Bottom line, what's in this bill for Romero?

Garry Hayes said...

I wish I knew...some days I think sinister legal motives, some days I think she got hoodwinked into supporting it out of sympathy. It makes no sense to stick with it now, I think, but who knows?

Unknown said...

Thanks for this update Garry! Let's keep at it. I am pretty optimistic about the outcome....this bill will not pass! Thanks to all for your tireless efforts.

Anonymous said...

A student's letter to:

Senator Romero,

I am sure you have heard of the geologic based fuss that is brewing over the California State rock, serpentine. I am also equally certain that your efforts to remove it were based in a good faith efforts to protect and serve your constituents. Kudos for the intent. As a voting mother I rely on my elected officials to understand the issues and act accordingly. Your intentions are commendable. Mesothelioma is a horrific and largely preventable condition that represents the greed and shameless morals of big business in the recent past. That said, I must tell you as a student of anthropology having taken several geology courses you were misinformed. This is the time where an educated person such as yourself needs to do the research to avoid looking foolish or causing people to panic about an entirely harmless rock. Should your bill pass there could be significant cost to California to remove allegedly toxic materials from thousands of locations across our state. Lawsuits would surely follow and the facts of the mineral would become known as harmless. The Nat'l Association of Geoscience Teachers is one among many other groups who are in direct and factual opposition to your bill. You seem to be a thoughtful and caring representative of our fine state, don't let an honest mistake taint your image and efforts! I am confident you would not wish to be accidentally responsible for millions of wasted tax dollars and untold frivolous lawsuits. This would be an "epic fail" in the attempt to do good. Please refer to Professor Gary Hayes webpage: (web address listed below.)

My sincere best wishes on your continued success, you are an inspiration to mujeres everywhere,

Kathy L. Crawford R.D.O, F.N.A.O

"Out of nowhere, a strange political issue: California's state rock is serpentine, and there is a effort to remove it. Learn why we shouldn't, in this series of posts on a beautiful rock."