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Dust in the Wind

[whitespace] rock
Christopher Gardner

Despite the abundance of naturally occurring asbestos in the rock of the Santa Clara Valley, no one is monitoring the potentially deadly fibers released into the air. Regulation is coming slowly to other communities in the state, but when it comes to development-crazed Silicon Valley, we probably shouldn't hold our breath.

By Jim Rendon

RICHARD WEISKAL SWINGS A ROCK HAMMER as he strides up a bright green hillside in south San Jose. His dog, Woody, trots, nose to the ground, picking up scents from the nearby cow herd. Following the contour of a low ridge, Weiskal stops at a footstool-sized rock and swings his small hammer. Bits of rock dust leap into the air, careening off his glasses. A small chunk of the dark green stone rolls into his palm.

"See that?" he says, rubbing his thumb over the white fibers running in a band across the rock. The fibers peel off the rock and take flight, like dandelion seeds blown into the breeze. "That's asbestos," he says. "It's everywhere."

The 53-year-old geologist turns to look at the barbed-wire fence that rings the flat graded crown of the hilltop quarry overlooking south San Jose. "That shit's highly toxic. They sit up there and blow dust out onto the open-air market, the neighborhoods. They do a disservice to the community, to put it mildly," he says, looking at the nearby shopping mall, the highways and businesses, and the acres of homes that recede into the distance like skewed geometric forms in an M.C. Escher drawing.

Weiskal spotted this quarry at the intersection of Capitol Expressway and Monterey Road last year on a flight back from Central America. As the plane began its descent, he glanced out the window to see bulldozers pushing dirt around on a hilltop. The geologist, who discovered a Redwood City mercury mine when he was just a teenager, knew there had been an old quicksilver mine on this site. And he wondered what a tractor was doing pushing dirt around on top of it in 1998.

He investigated and, as he expected, found plenty of mercury ore. But he also found something that worried him more--the white, fibrous mineral known as chrysotile, the most common form of naturally occurring asbestos. Chrysotile forms in serpentine, a rock that is abundant throughout California. In Santa Clara County, the greenish stone wells up in miles of thick, lumpy deposits along Highway 101 and in dots across south San Jose, like pockets of chips in a scarcely mixed batch of cookie dough.

From the top of the quarried hill, Weiskal looks toward the south, where the Santa Clara Valley narrows. The mountains rise and disappear into the valley bed, as if a giant were reclined on his side, half buried in sand on the valley floor. Hips rise up low and round, shoulders abrupt and steep. Though the valley is disjointed on the surface, Weiskal points out that everything runs on a northwest axis, driven by the biggest geologic force on the continent: the San Andreas fault. Marking many of the major faults is the olive-green serpentine rock, much of it laced with asbestos fibers, much of it slated for development.

As he walks across the muddy hillside, Weiskal takes an occasional swing at the stones pushed into straight lines by bulldozers. Rock after rock reveals more chrysotile asbestos, the very material used for decades in floor and ceiling tiles, plaster board and siding. Once considered a miracle fiber for its flame-retarding and insulating qualities, it is now on a construction blacklist. If just 1 percent of the white, stringy mineral is detected in a ceiling tile or in crumbling insulation, it's enough to close down a school or business--enough to bring in a space-suited crew to sample the air, tear out the offending material and send it to a licensed hazardous waste dump, with fees up to several thousand dollars.

California's panic attack over asbestos in buildings comes with good reason. Even a small number of the long, thin, resilient fibers can cause debilitating lung diseases and fatal cancers if they become lodged in the lungs.

Running in ribbons within serpentine rock, chrysotile deposits are common in California, yet there are few regulations on how it should be handled in its natural state or mitigated within quarries or during development. A Metro investigation reveals that no local, state or federal public or private agency is currently appointed to monitor outdoor asbestos levels--in the soil or in the air, where lightweight asbestos fibers have been known to stay airborne for weeks and travel for miles.

And so within this quarry and at other sites in the valley the potentially deadly rock and its lethal fibers can be disturbed with virtually no oversight. With housing and industrial development beginning to spread to more remote areas, developers' backhoes are starting to bite into miles of asbestos-laden serpentine along Highway 101 in South San Jose. Despite Silicon Valley's economic prowess and technological zeal, this county is far behind others in addressing what may be California's next environmental quagmire.

THERE ARE NO FLAGS or warning signs at the base of the kidney-shaped mound known as Communications Hill. At the quarry's entrance off Hillsdale Avenue, only one sign differentiates this dirt road from a dead end. Adjacent to a chain-link gate, the name of the quarry company, Raisch, is spelled out on a patriotic red, white and blue sign.

In a valley known for hot real estate, this quarry has had a sedate history. Mined for mercury until 1916, it was then bought by Manuel Azevedo, who was looking to expand his dairy farm. Today the bulk of Communications Hill, named because of AT&T's microwave tower on the knoll's western edge, is owned by MTA Properties, a family partnership directed by Robert Bettencourt, a descendant of Azevedo's. To this day the quarry retains the family name.

Since 1971, Raisch has dug out dirt and pulverized rock from MTA's hillside, selling it to the city and state, among others, for such projects as the San Jose Arena, the Route 87 extension, and assorted road and construction work.

In all those years, Raisch has maintained an exemplary record, says Rick Navarro, environmental affairs manager for Raisch.

But less than two decades ago, dirt and rock taken from this quarry and sold to the city of San Jose was later found to contain health-threatening levels of chrysotile--levels so high that the federal Environmental Protection Agency was called in to supervise the cleanup.

City officials in San Jose had purchased dirt and rock from Raisch to protect the small bayside community of Alviso from flooding in the record rainfall years of the early 1980s. Tons of rock and dirt were pulled from the Azevedo quarry, trucked 13 miles through San Jose to the northern tip of the city and bulldozed into a levee.

But soon a problem was uncovered. The levee contained lots of asbestos. In some places the concentrations were as high as 40 percent.

"We were concerned that the fiber would be released into the air if nothing was done," says Erik Yunker, the site supervisor with the EPA, which declared the area a Superfund site. "The wind would blow it [off the levee] or rain would wash it off, and it would get picked up on auto tires and get kicked into the air."

After five years of spraying the levee with a gluelike chemical coating to keep the fiber from breaking up and floating through the community, the levee was torn down and the soil removed.

In 1991, Raisch was ordered to split the $3 million cleanup cost with the city of San Jose, including a $1.1 million bill from the EPA.

Despite this costly public mistake, the EPA has only tested for asbestos once at the quarry in the wake of the toxic-levee incident. And despite the potential public health threat of airborne asbestos, no one but Raisch and the EPA will ever know the results of that 1986 test. The makeup of the dirt and rock in the quarry is considered proprietary business information, and by law Raisch is able to keep the test results secret.

In the wake of the levee mess, the city and state continued to contract with Raisch for rock and dirt from the very same quarry that produced the Alviso Superfund site. Such projects as the San Jose Arena, the resurfacing of Highway 101 and a city project on North First Street all received dirt and gravel from Raisch.

Far from condemning Raisch for the mistake that cost city taxpayers $1.5 million, city attorney Joan Gallo quickly comes to Raisch's defense, praising the company's efforts in Alviso.

"When Raisch helped with the ring levee, no one knew it [asbestos] was going to be a problem," Gallo says. "The material was not considered to be problematic in other situations where it was covered. It was not a question of Raisch's integrity or good intentions. Everyone was shocked."

Richard Weiskal Hard Rock Gaffe: Richard Weiskal strides between boulders at the Raisch Quarry located on Communications Hill, where rock containing 40 percent asbestos has been quarried and sold to the city of San Jose.

Christopher Gardner

JUST 17 YEARS AFTER Raisch ground up and dumped rock that was 40 percent asbestos into the water near Alviso, neither state nor federal agencies have taken a second look at Raisch, and especially not for asbestos.

Despite the Alviso incident, of the eight inspections of the quarry by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1991, not one looked for asbestos in the air.

Raisch environmental manager Navarro says that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration monitors his employees twice a year to check for potential problems from any number of airborne mineral compounds. "We even do our own air testing to cover our butts and have not had a problem," Navarro says.

Bill Wilson, the assistant district manager for the federal worker safety agency, confirms that in the last three years it has monitored the quarry, but admits inspectors did not check for asbestos and would not do so without a specific complaint. Despite the public history of asbestos at the quarry, Wilson says he was completely unaware of the problem.

Looking into the file, Wilson reports that in July 1998 inspectors from the agency did find high levels of quartz dust, but not high enough for a citation. "That level of dust is of some concern," says Wilson, indicating that whatever else was in the dust, including asbestos, was also getting into the air in high levels. In the future, he says, his agency will test the quarry for asbestos.

In its own testing, Raisch has turned up only low levels of asbestos, Navarro says. But he scoffs at the idea of any health risk. Absent any regulation, it doesn't really matter how much asbestos Raisch finds in the air around the quarry. The company is not breaking the law.

JUST A FEW HUNDRED yards east of the quarry, Deborah Lipscomb's white stucco house sits in a row of other modest homes. The 40-year-old teacher's aide has lived here for more than a decade, first as a teenager, then as an adult raising her own family.

Her home is no longer framed by San Jose's open sky or lumpy treeless hills. Instead, a wall of dirt more than a hundred feet tall looms behind it, crisscrossed with switchback paths for heavy equipment. Conveyer belts carry rock and dirt across the splayed hillside.

"It's really bad. I have to dust every day. My car gets dusty quite a bit--it's frustrating," Lipscomb says. The dust is so prevalent that she keeps her extensive collection of glass and ceramic figurines inside a floor-to-ceiling glass case. "But they still get dusty," she says. If she misses a day, the powdery dust piles up throughout her home, on shelves and windowsills, pooling in the corners. Like many of her neighbors, she complains about the quarry dust but has learned to live with it.

At Metro's request, Lipscomb allowed a technician from MACS Lab, an asbestos specialist, to test the dust in her home. Though ample dust was found, the tests showed no asbestos in the samples. In the months preceding the test, Raisch had ceased quarrying and it had recently rained, keeping any quarry dust to a minimum.

But these test results don't change the respiratory problems that plague Lipscomb's family. She and her husband both have bad allergies. Her teenage sons, Joseph and Andrew, both have asthma. Her mother has been diagnosed with emphysema. And two neighbors died of lung cancer.

Since 1974, Lipscomb's mother, Wanda Cornelius, has lived across the street from Raisch. Over the din of an air filter, the 64-year-old grandmother remembers how beautiful her courtyard was when she used to garden. Lemon and orange trees were surrounded by the rows of flowering pelargonium that lined her fence. Potted plants hung from the eaves. Now a lone tree fills the center of the patio. Now she gets winded just taking a shower or combing her hair.

Cornelius smoked for 48 years, but she thinks that all the dust pouring into her cottage from a quarter-century of quarrying contributed to her emphysema. The dust is so bad that she can't take care of it herself. She pays a cleaning person $65 a week to dust, and she asked her family to help her clean and dust the house in lieu of a Christmas present this year.

And Cornelius is not the only one in the neighborhood with life-threatening respiratory problems. Her brother Doyle McKinney, who lived across the street, died of lung cancer in 1989. Her neighbor Goldie Bowden also died of lung cancer that year. And these are just the problems the family knows about on this block.

That asbestos is a carcinogen is undisputed. The thin, hairlike mineral fibers are known to cause both lung cancer and emphysema and to exacerbate lung diseases in smokers. It is the sole cause of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the body cavity lining around the lungs and stomach. And the disease is a sleeper--signs of illness may not emerge until 30 years after asbestos exposure.

While many carcinogens require a base exposure before they can damage health, asbestos is different. Asbestos is more like playing catch with a hand grenade that can detonate at any time. The longer someone plays, the more likely it is to go off, but it may also explode on the first throw. When asbestos fibers are lodged in the lung, either they are absorbed by the body or they fester and cause damage, eventually spurring on cancer. The outcome depends on the shape of the fiber. Long, thin fibers can settle deep in the lung; they are the toughest to absorb and the most likely to cause cancer. While longer, more intense exposure certainly increases the likelihood of disease, it only takes a small number of the most insidious fibers to set off a fatal chain reaction.

Mesothelioma, the cancer caused only by asbestos, is rare. In the last decade 118 people in Santa Clara County have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the California Cancer Registry, part of a federal agency that monitors cancer rates. Fourteen of those cases were in the five ZIP codes surrounding Raisch's quarry, a number consistent with the proportion of county residents in the ZIP codes. The agency will not release the street addresses of these individuals, so there is no way to know how close to Raisch's quarry they lived or for how long.

In the early 1970s, when asbestos was linked to mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases, California went on a binge of purging asbestos from schools, public buildings and homes. The state and private property owners have spent millions to get rid of the ceiling and floor tiles, insulation, roofing material, drywall, siding and anything else containing the flame-retardant fiber. Even now, 10 years after most asbestos has been banished from local schools, the San Jose Unified School District still spends $600,000 a year on asbestos abatement. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District receives 4,000 notifications a year of major asbestos-removal projects.

The very same mineral that is in these materials is in Raisch's quarry, yet in Santa Clara County it gets no special treatment. Chrysotile used on roadbeds and stirred up in construction sites and quarries in concentrations far above what causes concern in homes has gone unnoticed. But according to Arnold Den, a senior science adviser with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, all forms of asbestos are considered carcinogens. While this county pretends that asbestos is harmless, some other counties are starting to treat asbestos like a dangerous carcinogen.

Christopher Gardner

Rock of Ages: Mined for mercury in the early part of the century, the quarry off Hillsdale Avenue in San Jose has been run by Raisch Quarry since 1971. Located above a residential area in central San Jose, Raisch has pulverized rock here for the San Jose Arena and the Route 87 extension, despite the presence of asbestos at the site.

IN THE MOUNTAINS of rural Lake County, chrysotile hangs off rock deposits alongside twisting roads. Construction inevitably stirs up a brew of asbestos fibers. And the local officials aren't about to let it go.

"If we find 1 percent asbestos in building materials, we tear the building apart and take all kinds of precautions. We should do the same for rock with 1 percent asbestos," says Robert Reynolds, head of the Lake County Air Quality Management District. In 1992, Lake County enacted tough regulations for handling chrysotile deposits. Companies proposing a construction project, roadbed or quarry on rock containing 1 percent asbestos or more must submit an extensive plan for protecting the health of workers and the community. Dust must be kept so low that it is not visible. Workers must be notified, and precautions are taken so that asbestos is not tracked off site on truck tires.

"There have been too many legal decisions and too many scientific studies for us to continue to breathe this in," Reynolds says. "We can't ban it, but we can make sure people are not exposed unnecessarily."

Other counties are also starting to address the problem. In the Sierra foothills outside Sacramento, a building boom is under way. Refugees from the Bay Area are buying up previously undeveloped forested hillsides for half-million-dollar retirement homes. Soil is getting turned up to dig foundations, roads are being carved into hillsides, rocks are getting crushed beneath heavy machinery and pulverized by blasting. All of this releases previously dormant asbestos into the air.

Spurred on by health concerns, the California Air Resources Board put together a new multi-agency task force to study the problem.

"Just last week we found airborne asbestos at levels that could cause cancer," says Jerry Martin, a member of the task force of the California Air Resources Board. After monitoring around a quarry, the agency found asbestos levels in the air that increase the cancer risk by 22 to 290 people per million with a 70-year exposure--levels the air board now says are too high. The quarry will have to find ways to cut down on the asbestos it kicks up.

In the interim, the air board has put together an information packet which contains not only details about the heath hazards of asbestos but also practical advice for living with the toxin.

"If you live downwind from an asbestos source, we recommend closing your windows, dusting with a damp cloth that gathers up particles rather than blows them somewhere else. You can vacuum carefully and wipe dust off shoes and clothes as well as pets, issues like that," Martin says.

Though Martin's task force is starting to examine the problem, asbestos here is virtually ignored, passing unscathed through a fun-house maze of regulatory agencies. The problem is so vast and so unpublicized that no agency has yet been pushed to action. And given the complexity of regulating an abundant mineral that poses significant health risks, no agencies are stepping forward.

Gary Rudholm, who handles quarries for the county planning department, says his agency has no specific responsibility for airborne chrysotile. While every quarry needs to submit a review where potential environmental problems are identified, the asbestos at Raisch's quarry was never considered a significant problem. There is no mention of it in recent inspections and, Rudholm says, the county has never tested for asbestos at Raisch's quarry.

Since the concern is with airborne asbestos, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, an agency that regulates toxins in the air, might have some regulatory obligation. But no.

"Naturally occurring asbestos is not regulated by us," says Jamie Kendall, a supervising air quality inspector with the agency who specializes in asbestos. The job has to be part of renovation or demolition, she says.

Even the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regularly inspects quarries for worker safety, does not specifically test for airborne asbestos unless there has been a complaint about that material made by a worker. The Federal Mine Safety Health Administration, which Navarro says is breathing down his neck, does not test for asbestos without a specific complaint either. And with the minimal publicity that chrysotile gets, most people wouldn't recognize the mineral if they were standing in a giant deposit.

The one knowledgeable man in Santa Clara County who could address the issue is convinced that stirred-up chrysotile deposits pose no health risk whatsoever, that regulation would be an overreaction, that public concern is misguided, verging on hysteria.

"I don't view the presence of chrysotile as a health hazard or an issue for future development," says Gary Lynch, the city's environmental compliance director, and a former San Jose State University professor. His unqualified indifference is at odds with the views of every environmental manager and scientist contacted for this article, and he is the one man who could do something to protect residents from asbestos exposure.

Lynch says there is no evidence that naturally occurring asbestos, in the amounts that could be absorbed by Lipscomb and her family or others in the neighborhood, poses any health threat. Manufactured asbestos, he says, is a greater threat because the fibers are longer and thinner than many of those in the natural rock. Health problems from chrysotile deposits develop from intense, long-term exposure, he says.

Arnold Den, with the U.S. EPA, disagrees with Lynch on most points, particularly the danger posed by chrysotile deposits. The fibers are no different in natural chrysotile, he says. It is a carcinogen. "We make no distinction between the two [naturally occurring and manufactured asbestos]."

Even Lynch admits that asbestos miners have suffered from mesothelioma, proving that when disturbed from rock, chrysotile fibers do cause cancer. Many studies show asbestos even causes cancer in the family members of workers exposed to it on the job. It is carried in dust, on clothes and on fabric. The fibers are light, resilient and potent, no matter where they come from.

But that is not enough for Lynch. He says that the level of exposure to unmanufactured chrysotile needed to cause cancer is very high, higher than what anyone could get from what is blown around in the wind over 30 years of quarrying.

Reynolds, in Lake County, laughs out loud at Lynch's assertion. "That's a big smoke screen," he says. The evidence, both scientific and legal, is incontrovertible. "There will come a day when we are all sorry that we did not do enough," he says.

The only thing that Lynch is right about is the dearth of studies on the particular effects of airborne asbestos, Den says. Because of the exorbitant cost and complexity of testing, scientists shy away from studies of most toxins--and asbestos is particularly tricky. Nearly everyone has some exposure to asbestos, from fraying brake linings to building materials to asbestos-rich soils. Finding a healthy group to compare exposure to would be next to impossible, he says. And in any event, the funding for a large long-term study to determine if a known carcinogen causes cancer simply does not exist.

But this, according to Reynolds and other experts, is no excuse for any agency to sit on its hands and pretend there is no problem.

Without regulation, Lipscomb's and her neighbors' problems are about to accelerate. Raisch is wrapping up its quarrying operation. And in a few short years, the entire hill will be dug up, graded and built on, creating a virtual dust storm, maybe for years.

THE 103-PAGE DOCUMENT outlining the developer's vision for Communications Hill calls for building 4,000 homes, both apartment buildings and single-family residences, that will make up "an urban hillside neighborhood somewhat like those in Seattle, San Francisco, Sausalito and Berkeley." A village center with shops, a school, a church and parks will dot the hillside in an urban grid. Planners hope that close proximity to the downtown and train lines will draw in people looking for urban living in suburbs with a view.

Robert Bettencourt, who owns most of the hillside, is aware of the chrysotile but says that it should pose no problem in development. Precautions will be taken during and after construction to keep the asbestos from being blown into the air, city planner Jodie Clark says. Individual contractors will be responsible for watering soil before they dig and for covering rock with a foot or more of topsoil when construction is complete.

But in Lake County, the measures that San Jose officials propose have proven insufficient. Reynolds has found that in order for contractors to get serious about protecting workers and the community, mitigation plans need focused attention from the air board as well as monitoring and tough enforcement.

The last time San Jose tried to mitigate for asbestos on Communications Hill, the city's measures fell well short of the mark, says Janet Darrow, an activist living at the foot of the hill. Ten years ago, when the freeway and light rail routes were cut through the hill, she fought the development. Though a 1987 study commissioned by the Transportation Agency revealed hillside rock containing up to 70 percent asbestos, the project was approved anyway.

Work crews were required to hose down the dirt before digging or grading. But Darrow says they skimped on the water. Dust, which most certainly contained asbestos, blew all over her home. "We constantly had to call and complain to make sure they used enough water," she says. The air district would cite the contractors, she says. "The problem was they would pay the fines and not comply. It didn't protect anyone."

Darrow's experience makes assurances from the city sound hollow, at best.

The pending development is not the end of the problem, but really just the beginning. Given the well-known history of the asbestos-laden Alviso levee rock, Communications Hill may have a good chance of being developed safely. It is surrounded by homes and businesses, and the city wants badly to develop it. Perhaps more risky are the dozens of projects going up every day along the unbroken serpentine rock deposits by Highway 101, in scattered pockets in south San Jose and Almaden, with little regulation or oversight.

Just a few miles south of the quarry, a bright yellow sign marks the entrance to a construction site. It warns of a chemical known to cause cancer. South Bay Construction is in the middle of building a high school and junior high school on top of the hill in an area abundant in chrysotile.

The site is surrounded by homes and businesses on all sides. Randy Awalt, the project manager, says workers are required to minimize dust. The company is also monitoring air on site. But these precautions are taken for the workers' sake. No one is approaching this issue from the perspective of the people living nearby.

Nonetheless, planners in San Jose say the situation is under control. Ron Duncan, director of environmental management in El Dorado County, says that development on asbestos can be managed safely by consistently wetting down soil before digging and carefully tarping loaded trucks. "Once you put up houses, streets and landscaping, the likelihood of creating a problem [later] diminishes," he says. The trapped asbestos will not get into the air. But he fails to mention that without development, the chrysotile would never have been disturbed in the first place. Without development, there would be no problem.

Other experts are more skeptical than Duncan, calling for more study and heightened vigilance to eliminate construction-site dust and protect workers and the community. But without any strong regulating agency in San Jose pushing for these measures, it is questionable that any company will give dust suppression the attention it needs.

Because there is no standard for airborne chrysotile, developers, quarry operators and community members alike have no way to judge their exposure, no way to determine whether or not they have been poisoned. Without standards, developers in El Dorado County have started to shy away from building sites heavy in serpentine. But here in Silicon Valley, carcinogenic asbestos poses no more obstacle to developers than dirt on a hot, dry day.

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From the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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