Politics of a rock
Update: I changed the name of this post. I originally titled it “They’re not all keepers,” meaning not all stories are keepers, but then realized that it probably read more like, not all state symbols are keepers, which is not what I was trying to say.
Not all stories get to air. Some never make it to a pitch: ideas and email exchanges taper off, someone else does the story first, or it’s already been done. Some get pitched but no editor wants them: not enough sound, not newsy enough, too local, not local enough.
One I worked on for a few weeks was hours away from airing on Friday, and then it didn’t:
The controversy over California’s state rock has been floating around the past couple months. You may have already read or tweeted about it. California was the first state in the union to name a state rock. It’s serpentine. Turns out serpentine sometimes contains asbestos. The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization has pushed for serpentine to not be state rock any more for that reason. A bill was introduced in the legislature. Geologists and ecologists are fighting back.
The story was going to be pretty short, about 3 and a half minutes long (for those of you who don’t spend a lot of time timing how long it takes you to say stuff, that’s about 3 and a half pages, double-spaced, 14-point font). That’s about enough time for everyone to get a word in, and still cram in a bit of a scene (in this case, geologist Garry Hayes chipping away at a chunk of serpentine on the side of the road).
This was a fun story to report. I found everyone I spoke with to be thoughtful, and–to varying degrees–at least somewhat understanding of the other side’s view. I got to two cool spots: a serpentine grassland on Jasper Ridge, a preserve near Stanford; and Del Puerto Canyon, which is on the eastern side of the Coast Range, near Patterson, CA (I also got to discover that my car’s AC is broken–that useful information presented itself on the drive to Patterson; it was 109 degrees that day).
Serpentine–well, really, the rock is serpentinite, the mineral mix is serpentine–is often greenish gray. Wildflowers grow on serpentine soil, and butterflies depend on those flowers. Mercury and chromite have been mined from it. It’s sometimes a sign that gold is nearby, it’s associated with faults, it played a role in the development of the theory of plate tectonics. It’s in the Coast Range, the Klamath Mountains, the Mother Lode region. And the asbestos part: serpentine was named state rock in 1965, at least partly thanks to the efforts of the asbestos mining lobby.
I knew next to nothing about asbestos going into this. Here’s what I know now: asbestos is a type of mineral that take a fibrous shape. The kind that’s sometimes found in serpentine is chrysotile. When asbestos is pulverized you can breathe in those fibers. Somewhere down the line–and part of what’s so scary is how long it takes, it can be decades–people who have worked around broken up asbestos, in mines, in construction, in shipyards, can get mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer. People opposed to serpentine as a state rock say the state shouldn’t have a symbol that’s connected to, well, death. The bill would remove serpentine as the state rock, and eliminate the category of state rock entirely.
Is serpentine a good symbol for the state? Having grown up in a state with the Confederate flag flying above the capital in the form of our state flag, I appreciate the fact that symbols matter. They can matter a lot.
In the end, we killed the story because the bill effectively died. SB 624 was making its way through the Assembly, then was sent back to Rules Committee. With a week left in this legislative session, it’s unlikely it’ll come up for a vote.