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Politics of a rock

August 23, 2010

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).

Garry Hayes

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).

Stanford's Jon Christensen showing me dwarf plantain, which grows on serpentine soils and is food for Bay checkerspot butterfly larvae (aka caterpillars).

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.

In other California legislature nature news, AB 2063, which would name Chinook salmon the official state anadromous fish (we already have a state fish and a state marine fish) is still in play.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2010 7:28 pm

    Any chance you’ll post the story where those interested could listen anyway?

    • mollysamuel permalink
      August 24, 2010 2:40 pm

      I thought about it, but I probably won’t. I don’t have the final version; my voice was recorded at the station and an engineer there mixed it. What I have is everyone else’s voices and the ambi (sounds of birds, hammering on rocks, walking on a path). I could record myself and mix the story, but it’s a good amount of work for a story that’s not going to air, and I have other stuff that takes priority now (you know, like the documentary).

      • August 24, 2010 3:08 pm

        yeah, that makes sense to not do any more work on it … oh well :)

  2. August 25, 2010 11:36 pm

    Call me heartless, but I have to be glad this didn’t run.
    Hear me out. I know how much work you must have put into this. I filmed an episode of my video podcast about this topic and then shelved it due to the bill’s language being removed. It just didn’t make sense for me to continue to beat the drum. I spent so much time filming, writing and editing that episode and it is worthless now.

    I’m not happy I did that work for nothing, to just shelve a project. I’m not happy you had to do the same with much more work involved (not as much time in the makeup chair I’m sure) BUT, it drives me nuts to see all of the junk science that makes it into the best report on the issue. Linda from ADAO talking about asbestos is like listening to Ahab give an impassioned speech about the terrors of killer whales. An unreasoning goal of revenge on nature. The foolish idea she published that Asbestos industries were behind Serpentine becoming the state stone in the first place, when documents clearly show that not a single “asbestos” company was behind the bill, simply the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies, the department of mines and the academy of science. Then, the idea that Chrysotile is even a hazard, when it can not be shown that chrysotile without amphibole inclusions is a source of any major outbreak of lung disease or cancer.

    Reporters just never give the reality, but both sides of the story. I’m not going to begrudge giving the other side a chance to speak, however I don’t it when the facts both groups get intermingled in the stories. They have their beliefs, we have our scientific facts.

  3. August 29, 2010 8:10 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to post this. I finally added it to my #CAserpentine links – have just now caught up, hopefully for good. :)

    • mollysamuel permalink
      August 30, 2010 10:13 am

      Silver Fox, thanks for the link.

      Justin Zzyzx, thanks for the comment, and sorry it took me so long to respond (I have been laid up with a miserable cold). I think in the case of this story, not just mine, but in all the coverage, it’s not just about the science. It’s not like climate change coverage, when reporters (wrongly) feel the need to have deniers weigh in just to represent a different side. Because in this case, the story wasn’t a purely scientific one. It’s not “does serpentine cause cancer?” The question is “is serpentine a good symbol?” That can’t be answered with scientific fact alone. Non-scientists have every right to weigh in on a symbol that represents California and all Californians. If anyone’s stating facts that aren’t true, that doesn’t do anyone any good, especially if they’re repeated in news coverage. And so: mea culpa, I took Reinstein’s word for it that serpentine had been pushed initially by the mining lobby.

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