Asbestos Risks Drive Bid To Dump California’s State Rock
Normally, lawmakers carry legislation to add something to California’s list of “official state” symbols.
But in an unusual twist, a Los Angeles state senator wants to remove an item.
Not the dogface butterfly, California’s official state insect. Not the Golden State’s official song, “I Love You California,” words by Los Angeles merchant F.B. Silverwood, music by Alfred Frankenstein, which few people have heard of, let alone sung.
California’s state grass — nassella pulchra, or purple needlegrass – so designated in 2004, is also safe.
Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat, and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization want serpentine to no longer be California’s official state rock, a designation it has had for 45 years.
Serpentine is not unique to California although some plant species dependent on serpentine soils are. It is a mottled, dull green rock that, as the name suggests, is reminiscent of a snake’s skin.
It also contains chrysotile asbestos, exposure to which can increase the risk of mesothelioma, a cancer most commonly concentrated in the lungs.
Alan Reinstein, husband of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization co-founder Linda Reinstein, died of mesothelioma in 2006. The organization is spearheading what it calls the “Drop the Rock” campaign to remove serpentine from the “official” list.
Reinstein and Romero’s eight-paragraph measure, SB 624, say “California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state’s official rock.”
Romero’s bill would amend Section 425.3 of the Government Code, striking out “serpentine” and leaving a blank future legislators can fill with a new “official state rock and lithologic emblem.”
In 1965, California was the first state in the nation to create an official state rock. It did so in SB 265 by Sen. Luther Gibson, a Vallejo Democrat who had been a member of the upper house since 1948.
A newspaper publisher, Gibson founded the Vallejo Herald in 1922. His official 1957 Senate biography says that at the time he also published the Evening News-Chronicle, Sonora Union Democrat, Travis Global Ranger and Benicia Herald. He carried the legislation creating the Carquinez Bridge, the first bridge across the bay, and what’s now known as the Martinez Bridge. He also carried legislation creating the state Maritime Academy in Vallejo.
The section of Interstate 680 connecting Interstate 80 in Fairfield to Interstate 780 in Benicia is named after Gibson. It includes, at his insistence, an off ramp to his duck club. He died at 93 in 1988.
Gibson’s bill also made gold California’s official state mineral.
In an April 14, 1965 letter urging Gov. Pat Brown to sign Gibson’s bill, DeWitt Nelson, head of Brown’s Department of Conservation, wrote:
“Serpentine indirectly is of great economic importance to California. It is a host rock for the state’s newest and most rapidly growing mineral industry – asbestos, now bringing in several millions of dollars annually.
“Designating serpentine as the state rock will increase the market for such items and improve the local economy in a number of places.”
Brown signed Gibson’s measure on April 20, 1965.
Romero is no stranger to legislation regarding official state designations.
In 2002, she objected to a bill that would give Bodie, a once bustling Mono County town now in ruins, the title of California’s official ghost town. Students from Lee Vining Junior High School, about 30 miles from Bodie, suggested the idea. Romero, who grew up in Barstow, often visited nearby Calico, a former silver mining town turned tourist attraction. She credits Calico with giving her a sense of California history.
Gracing Bodie with the “official” title might be bad for Calico’s business, she and San Bernardino County supervisors decided. The Bodie bill was killed.
But in the final two weeks of the legislative session the measure was revived as part of what then Sen. Debra Bowen, a Marina del Rey Democrat, called the “Great Ghost Town Compromise of 2002.”
San Bernardino county officials said they wouldn’t object to Bodie being “a” ghost town, just not “the” ghost town. Under Bowen’s compromise, Bodie was designated California’s official “Gold Rush” ghost town.
Calico, in future legislation, would become the state’s official “Silver Rush” ghost town.
Then Gov. Gray Davis signed the Bodie legislation in September 2002. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Calico measure in 2005.
One of the highest profile attempts to add to the list occurred in 1988 when a group of Redwood City Campfire Bluebirds convinced then Assemblyman Byron Sher, a Palo Alto Democrat, to carry legislation making the banana slug the official state mollusk.
Then Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed the bill, saying the measure was “not representative of the international reputation California enjoys.”
The measure drew so much coverage — statewide and internationally — that a study was conducted to compare the amount of media attention the slugs got compared to that year’s budget.
Banana slugs in a landslide.
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