Newly arrived on the enemies list of the perennially concerned is California’s state rock, serpentine. A bill to oust serpentine is making its way through the California State Legislature, and geologists are flocking to the Magnesium Iron Silicate Hydroxide’s defense.
The bill to defrock the rock â€” which recently passed the full State Senate and is awaiting a vote in the Assembly â€” is sponsored by Senator Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, with the strong support of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Declaring that serpentine â€œhas known health effects,â€ the bill would leave California â€” one of roughly half the states in the nation with an official rock or mineral â€” without an official rock. (According to the bill, California was the first state, in 1965, to name an official rock.) Asbestos occurs naturally in many minerals, and indeed some serpentine rocks do serve as a host for chrysotile, a form of asbestos. But geologists say chrysotile is less harmful than some other forms of asbestos, and would be a danger â€” like scores of other rocks â€” only if a person were to breathe its dust repeatedly.
â€œThere is no way anyone is going to get bothered by casual exposure to that kind of rock,â€ said Malcolm Ross, a geologist who retired from the United States Geological Survey in 1995. â€œUnless they were breaking it up with a sledgehammer year after year.â€
Dr. Ross and other opponents of the bill are concerned that removing serpentine, which is occasionally used in jewelry, as the stateâ€™s rock would demonize it and thus inspire litigation against museums, property owners and other sites where the rocks sit; they cite the inclusion of a letter of support from the Consumer Attorneys of California with the bill as evidence.
â€œIf they keep the asbestos issue bubbling,â€ Dr. Ross said, â€œit means money for politicians, more money for lawyers and money for scientists to investigate.â€
J. D. Preston, a spokesman from the consumer lawyers group, said the group had nothing to do with drafting the legislation and was just responding to a request from the awareness organization for a support letter. â€œWe just thought this was a good fit in our mission of consumer safety,â€ Mr. Preston said. â€œIt is certainly not the intent, and we donâ€™t even see where it opens the avenue for litigation.â€
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated no position.
We were unable to interview Virginia’s state rock, as none has ever been appointed. Virginia’s state fossil Chesapecten jeffersonius, being naturally conservative, expressed mild chagrin at California’s radical politics, but was happy that California is so far away.