California’s Pet Rock, Part III

First I wrote last week about SB 624, legislation to revoke the status of serpentine, which can contain asbestos, as California’s official state rock on the basis that it’s a symbol conveying a deadly legacy. Then I wrote about an industrial anti-lawsuit group’s opposition to the bill, on the basis that it’s a stalking horse for expanded asbestos litigation.

Now comes a statement from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which is working with the John McNamara Foundation and the Pacific Heart, Lung and Blood Institute on a “Drop the Rock” campaign.

“What is abundantly clear from what began as a City of Manhattan Beach resolution over the past three weeks, is that the United States needs to embrace education to prevent occupational and non-occupational exposure to asbestos,” ADAO CEO and co-founder Linda Reinstein said.

“This issue is not about litigation, but education through awareness,” she continued. “Patients and physicians from around the world have applauded our efforts. ADAO respects and understands the geological debate, but this is not about geology; it is about promoting public health through education concerning a rock that contains a known carcinogen among many of its forms. It is not about what serpentine is or is not; it is a question of removing a state-wide symbol that represents a substance, that can, in one of its forms, cause irreversible disease and death as it has to thousands of its victims.”

BBC News picked up on the debate over the weekend, so now it’s truly international news (though we probably crossed that bridge with the New York Times last week).

Still awaiting that Assembly floor vote…


California’s Pet Rock, Part II

Even as I was penning my blog item yesterday about the debate over lawmakers’ move to drop serpentine as California’s official state rock, the Civil Justice Association of California – an industry-sponsored group seeking to restrict lawsuit damages – was sending a memo asking Assembly members to oppose the bill.

“We believe SB 624, if enacted into law, will be used in an attempt to justify naming additional blameless public and private defendants in asbestos litigation,” CJAC President John Sullivan wrote. “Out-of-state plaintiff law firms specializing in asbestos litigation have been moving to California to take advantage of our evidence and forum rules.”

That means bigger burdens on trial courts, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles, he wrote. “We have no position on whether serpentine or any other mineral should be California’s state rock, or whether the state should even have one. But should the matter be dealt with, doing so should not be based on bad science that inspires bad law.”

And, as the New York Times carried a story on the debate today, it’s now national news; congrats, California.


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.


UC Berkeley speakers boycott gains steam

Add State Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, to the list of speakers who have withdrawn from commencement activities at the University of California, Berkeley due to ongoing labor strife.

Gloria RomeroRomero, also a candidate for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, had been scheduled to keynote the UC Berkeley Latino Student ceremony this Saturday; a labor union issued a statement today in which Romero said she’ll honor a boycott called by Cal workers and student groups.

“It was with a heavy heart that I informed the UC Berkeley students and dedicated faculty and staff that I would not appear to deliver my remarks in person. What an irony I would have seen: on one hand, students in robes celebrating the overcoming of obstacles and staking their claim in the American Dream; on the other hand, I would have seen Latino workers—perhaps their own uncles and aunts, holding picket signs asking this internationally acclaimed university to simply pay them a living wage so that the graduates’ younger ‘hermanitos’ could one day attend the same university,” Romero said in her statement.

Others who have chosen to honor the boycott include former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who had been scheduled to address graduating political science students on Monday, and author Karen Joy Fowler, who had been scheduled to address graduating English Department students next Sunday, May 23. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, earlier this week cancelled her June 12 appearance at UC Riverside’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences graduation ceremonies, saying her family roots are in organized labor and she won’t cross a picket line to speak.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 – which represents more than 20,000 UC service and patient care workers and which announced Romero’s withdrawal – said the boycotts have been called in part due to mandatory reductions in hours for low-wage service workers, such as custodians and food service workers – cuts of 4 to 6 percent in take-home pay, when some were already making as little as $24,000 a year.

“These cuts have been devastating for low-wage workers,” said AFSCME 3299 President Lakesha Harrison. “Layoffs and reduction in hours are only the tip of the iceberg. UC executives are now proposing massive cuts to our retirement. We may be facing a double whammy – a depletion of our savings now and a gutting of the income we were counting on for our future.”

The UC Berkeley speakers boycott also been called by the Union of Professional and Technical Employees; CWA Local 1 (UPTE 1) represents UC research support and technical workers.

And that’s not the only Cal labor strife that’s getting political attention this week. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, wrote a letter yesterday to UC President Mark Yudof expressing his concern about the university’s failure to come to an agreement with the union representing its 6,000 post-doctoral scholars – a topic on which he held a committee field hearing just a few weeks ago.


Campaign finance update: Ballot measures, Brown

ch-CHING!Palo Alto physicist Charles T. Munger Jr., son of Warren Buffett’s billionaire investor partner, yesterday put another $512,167 into his “Voters First Act for Congress” ballot measure, bringing his total so far to $1,515,197. The measure would remove authority for setting California’s 53 Congressional district boundaries from the state Legislature, and would give that authority instead to the same Citizens Redistricting Commission that will soon be setting state Legislative boundaries (as required by last year’s successful Proposition 11).

Real-estate and financial billionaire Eli Broad of Los Angeles put up $100,000 for Californians for an Open Primary. That’s the committee backing the ballot measure that state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria – the guy Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped this week to serve as lieutenant governor – forced Legislative Democrats to put on the June 2010 ballot in exchange for his crucial Republican vote on a budget agreement earlier this year. The money, so far, has not been rolling in fast.

Republican former Los Angeles Mayor, 2002 gubernatorial primary candidate and education secretary Richard Riordan gave $6,500 Friday to Democrat Gloria Romero’s campaign for superintendent of public instruction.

And among those showing Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign the deep-pocketed love in the past week are Gemini Industries founder Sebastian Paul Musco and his wife, Marybelle, of Newport Beach ($103,600); movie mogul Rob Reiner of Beverly Hills ($50,000); Belkin International President and CEO Chet Pipkin and his wife, Janice, of Manhattan Beach ($50,000); Hard Rock Hotel and Casino founder and chairman Peter Morton of Los Angeles ($50,000); investor Linda Buckel of Park City, Utah ($50,000); and Annenberg Foundation chairwoman, president and CEO Wallis Annenberg of Los Angeles ($46,000).


Steinberg names state Senate committee chairs

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento – how weird not to be writing “Don Perata!” – rolled out his committee chair appointments today:

  • Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego: Appropriations Committee
  • Ron Calderon, D-Montebello: Banking & Finance Committee
  • Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego: Budget and Fiscal Review Committee
  • Gloria Negrete-McLeod, D-Chino: Business, Professions & Economic Development Committee
  • Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles: Education Committee
  • Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley: Elections, Reapportionment & Constitutional Amendments Committee
  • Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley: Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee
  • Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto: Environmental Quality Committee
  • Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood: Governmental Organization Committee
  • Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara: Health Committee
  • Carol Liu, D-Pasadena: Human Services Committee
  • Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro: Judiciary Committee
  • Mark DeSaulnier, D-Martinez: Labor and Industrial Relations Committee
  • Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa: Local Government Committee
  • Fran Pavley, D-Augora Hills: Natural Resources & Water Committee
  • Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana: Public Employees and Retirement Committee
  • Mark Leno, D-San Francisco: Public Safety Committee
  • Lois Wolk, D-Davis: Revenue and Taxation Committee
  • Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach: Transportation and Housing Committee
  • Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, continues as assistant Pro Tem, and the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs committee chairs haven’t been named yet.

    Let’s take a spin through the Bay Area appointments, shall we?

    Although Hancock had chaired the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, it seems a natural fit for her to take the Senate Elections committee now because she has been a champion of campaign finance reform. Her AB 583, the California Clean Money and Fair Elections Act signed into law Sept. 30, creates a pilot project in which the 2014 and 2018 candidates for Secretary of State (SOS) will be eligible to have their campaigns funded mostly with public money if they agree not turn away most private contributions and if they collect a specified number of $5 contributions.

    Simitian already chaired the Environmental Quality Committee and Corbett already chaired Judiciary in the last session, so no changes there.

    Alquist takes over the health committee from the term-limited-out Sheila Kuehl, who had used that post to crusade for universal, single-payer health care, twice vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (SB 840 of 2005-06 and SB 840 of 2007-08). Alquist had co-authored Kuehl’s bills, and opposed the plan put forth by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders last year. See where this is headed?

    DeSaulnier takes over Labor and Industrial Relations from the ousted Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, defeated in her primary by Mark Leno. It could be an interesting place to be if Senate Democrats again try – as Perata did in the last two sessions, meeting vetoes both times (SB 815 of 2005-06 and SB 1717 of 2007-08 – to restore permanently disabled workers’ workers compensation insurance benefits that were slashed in 2004.

    And Leno – who chaired Assembly Public Safety before running Assembly Appropriations – gets Senate Public Safety, formerly chaired by Romero. Will he use the post as a bully pulpit for pushing prison reform, as she did?