Casting Out the First (Official) Stone

Somewhere in the hallowed halls of California’s Capitol in Sacramento today, the process started to officially throw out the official state rock – and, as it might turn out, not invite another mineral to take its place.

em hed shot 2 120You didn’t know anything about this? Except for 20 or so groups and individuals – all keen to toss the rock out – the action didn’t get much play until the Sacramento Bee noted it in passing late last week. With a hearing before the state Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee scheduled for today, there’s not much time for the general public to take a stand.
This isn’t a fight that virtually anyone in the dimensional-stone trade wants to take up. However, the aftermath may call for some close scrutiny.

The rock in question is serpentine, which became the first-ever state rock in the history of our country in that far-distant time of 1965. California’s General Assembly thought that it might be dandy to tag the rock with the official designation, with some hopes of generating some interest, some mining, and more than a few jobs for constituents.

Unfortunately, the serpentine that’s strewn throughout Northern California isn’t something anyone wanted to cut into squares and tiles. This serpentine is perfect for a product that’s literally become a synonym for death: asbestos.

The effort from 45 years ago to give the rock an official place didn’t spark any significant mining activity, even in those innocent, what’s-this-flaky-white-stuff days. California’s state rock is the stuff of obscure trivia contents and the occasional columnist looking for a cheap laugh.

Why the big deal today? The movement to drop serpentine from state officialdom came last year from the city government of Manhattan Beach, Calif., which proffered a resolution calling for a change. This stemmed, according to local news reports, from an effort by a Manhattan Beach resident who’s also a co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ABAO).

The ABAO is one of the groups in support of California Senate Bill 624, sponsored by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), which would strip serpentine of its official status and find another rock for the state to call its own.

Of course, not everything is fully straightforward in Sacramento. Sen. Romero’s bill originally started as a housekeeping item about membership on waste-disposal-district boards. Then, it became a bill about composting and anaerobic digestion of organic materials, which is what the state Senate passed in April 2009.

SB 624 then languished in the Assembly – California’s version of a house of representatives – until the middle of last month, when the anaerobics took a powder and the serpentine ouster appeared.

This is often standard procedure in California politics; about a decade ago, a wetlands-protection bill magically changed overnight into legislation to ban prescription-drug counters in stores selling groceries in a certain percentage of their total square-footage, which applied in the real world solely to Costco warehouse outlets. (That bill, by the way, actually passed both California houses before getting a veto from then-Gov. Gray Davis.)

SB 624 isn’t likely to get much opposition, since declaring any fealty to an asbestos carrier is like supporting the right to openly horsewhip people in public. Tossing out serpentine is an action where the intent is much larger than the result, and I can’t argue with the symbolism.

What does disturb me, however, are the names of two organizations/interested parties in support of the action: namely, Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood & Harley, plus Water, Kraus & Paul Attorneys and Counselors. Click on the names and you’ll find two law firms specializing in mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease cases. (You’ll also find the Kazan law firm as a top sponsor of the ADAO).

The support from tort lawyers may be an action of their Good Turn Department. The opposite result would be the start of a campaign to troll for anyone who’s every come within sight of serpentine and initiate more legal action, which would put some stone and tile shops in the crosshairs.

Unfortunately, it’s also a process of splitting hairs that often get lost in the din of product-injury litigation. Serpentine isn’t just one stone, but a name for a group of minerals. One of those groups – chrysotile – is the one with a crystalline structure that becomes the fibrous weave of asbestos. It’s also the stuff that’s all over northern California.

What’s you’ve possibly dealt with your shop is likely from the antigorite group, with a completely different, non-fibrous, non-asbestos makeup. That’s a fact that may get a bit fuzzy in the future; keep on the alert in case people start asking some very odd questions about serpentine use.

Meanwhile, the state assembly’s analysis of the bill offered this final gem:

"Since particulate matter from most rocks may cause lung and other health risks when disturbed and mined from their environments the author and committee may wish to amend SB 624 to simply repeal the section designating a state rock and not seek a replacement state rock."

This amazing logic could easily be transferred to anything on the laundry list of California’s official designations, as any animal, bird or reptile (currently the grizzly bear, California quail and desert tortoise) could spread disease, any motto (“Eureka”) could be taken the wrong way and any dance (West Coast Swing Dancing) could lead to ... well, a folk dance (square dancing).

Plenty of Californians would support a movement to designate a new state rock that doesn’t disturb one shovelful of earth to exhibit. Just go to Sacramento, find the people inhabiting the Capitol – and you’ll find it between their ears.

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