Lawmakers want to get state rock off the books

Doesn’t it seem like a commentary on California’s woes that its state rock has turned out to be the subject of a hot debate?

SerpentineI didn’t even know that the state rock is serpentine, although I’m not a native and so wouldn’t have learned it in a civics/geology class. Serpentine is actually the name for a group of minerals appearing apple-green to black, often mottled with light and dark colored areas, with shiny or wax-like surfaces and a slightly soapy feel. It’s found in central and northern California – in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath Mountains, and in the Sierra Nevada foothills – and it has been our state rock since 1965; we were the first state to have a state rock.

And some forms of it can contain asbestos fibers, which might give you lung cancer. Oops!

So now there’s SB 624 by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles, which would remove the category of the state rock from the Government Code and declare “that serpentine rock contains a known carcinogen that increases the risk of the cancer mesothelioma in humans.”

Not so fast, say some rockhounds.

“Rarely has so much attention been paid to a rock.,” Modesto Junior College geology professor Garry Hayes said in a news release today. “This is a teachable moment.”

Hayes is among geologists and geology buffs who oppose stripping serpentine of its title, although they do acknowledge the concerns of advocates who claiming that asbestos fibers found in some forms of serpentine can pose a risk. He and others have been blogging about this for a few weeks, and a debate has sprung up on Twitter – go look for the #CAserpentine hashtag.

“The legislature needs to back off,” blogger Silver Fox wrote July 3. “Otherwise one might think that the legislature was getting ready to fund the state of California (and themselves?) through litigation, rather than by any legitimate means.”

Whoa, easy there, Fox – don’t get your rocks in a heap. But it’s amazing how this is eliciting such love and concern.

“Serpentine has an incredibly deep, rich history in California,” says Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, an environmental historian who’s writing a book about serpentine. “It is connected to the Gold Rush, earthquakes, plate tectonics, and habitat for California’s iconic spring wildflower displays, as well as endangered species.”

If they’re going to talk the Legislature out of this, they’d better get moving: The state Senate passed Romero’s bill May 18 on a 36-0 vote, and the Assembly Natural Resources Committee passed it June 31 on a 7-0 vote; it now awaits an Assembly floor vote.

UPDATE @ 2:21 P.M.: I stand corrected. As noted in the comments below, SB 624 was approved by the state Senate in May 2009 when it still dealt with composting issues; it was later gutted and amended to deal with serpentine, and would have to go back to the state Senate if the Assembly ends up passing it. Apologies for the error.

UPDATE @ 2:09 P.M. WEDNESDAY: Geologists aren’t the only ones opposing the bill.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.