Health worries for east county

Published: Thursday, May. 12, 2005 - 7:50 am
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 21, 2006 - 2:26 pm

Setting It Straight: A photo caption accompanying a Thursday Page A1 story about naturally occurring asbestos gave the wrong title for Dan Meer. He is chief of the Emergency Response, Planning and Assessment Branch at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 9.

A Page A1 story on Thursday about asbestos-laden rock in eastern Sacramento County incorrectly identified two proposed developments as being in mapped asbestos zones. Based on incorrect information from a Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District official, the story wrongly said the Rio Del Oro development proposed by GenCorp and Elliott Homes was in a mapped area. Because of a reporting error, the story incorrectly said GenCorp's proposed Easton development was there, too. Because neither site is in mapped asbestos areas, a headline in some editions - "Asbestos: Big GenCorp project involved" - also was incorrect.

Miles-long belts of asbestos-bearing rock lie in the path of major residential developments planned by the city of Folsom and GenCorp in eastern Sacramento County, a regional air pollution official said at a state Senate hearing Wednesday.

The news from Larry Greene, executive officer of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, significantly expands the area of concern where construction can churn up naturally occurring asbestos and create a potential health hazard.

While developing communities uphill of Folsom have struggled with asbestos for years, it was only last year that the fibrous minerals were discovered in Folsom, at a site planned for a high school and the nearby Empire Ranch housing development.

The asbestos find at the proposed Lago Vista High School led air district regulators to investigate where else development in fast-growing eastern Sacramento County might encounter asbestos.

State geologists said the areas likely to contain the minerals cover nearly all of Folsom and a large swath of undeveloped land south of Highway 50 to Rancho Murieta.

"Now we have a larger area to be concerned with," Greene said in testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate committees on health and environmental quality.

The heads of the committees, Sens. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, respectively, called the informational hearing to learn whether government is doing enough to protect foothills residents from asbestos exposure.

The four-hour hearing drew testimony from foothills residents and federal, state and local officials. Regulators outlined the safeguards they have taken, while foothills residents criticized them for not doing enough.

The hearing was tied to an Ortiz bill, SB 655, that would have a team of state health and environmental specialists develop ways to assess and minimize residents' risks of asbestos-related disease.

The worrisome geologic formations underlie more than 3,500 acres of land that developers have bought in anticipation of Folsom annexing the land and Sacramento County expanding its urban growth boundary.

The developers include GenCorp, the parent of the rocket manufacturer Aerojet in Rancho Cordova. The company's Easton Project would put houses, offices and retail outlets on land straddling Folsom and Rancho Cordova.

Farthest along is Elliot Homes' proposed 11,500-home Rio del Oro community on what used to be part of the defense contractor's sprawling compound.

The suspect areas are in formations known by geologists as the Copper Hill Volcanics and Gopher Ridge Belt of the Sierra Nevada foothills, Greene said.

The rock is similar to that identified in western El Dorado County and elsewhere in the Sierra foothills and Coast Ranges as hosting asbestos.

"It's not a surprise now that we think about it," Greene said Wednesday after the hearing.

The air district's governing board, comprising county and city officials, recently approved a $50,000 contract with the California Geological Survey to create a map of the area that better defines where asbestos would likely be found.

As part of the mapping effort, the air district will commission geologists and laboratories to analyze soil samples to test for asbestos.

Some developers already have found asbestos veins on planned building sites, according to David Sederquist, a geologist who consults for developers.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Geological Society of America in San Jose last month, Sederquist said he and other geologists have been in the field evaluating the areas under question since early 2003.

Sederquist said they discovered several veins of a particularly potent form of asbestos called amphibole, which is also found in El Dorado Hills.

But he said the asbestos is harder to find than it is uphill in western El Dorado County because the landscape doesn't bear the telltale outcrops of serpentine and other asbestos-containing rock.

The joint Senate committee hearing followed the release of two federal asbestos studies finding that students and staff at Oak Ridge High School likely breathed the minerals' hazardous fibers in years past and that people playing across the street at the community's busiest park continue to be exposed.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released a study Friday that said the high school is no longer exposed to elevated levels of asbestos since bare grounds were paved or landscaped last summer.

The agency warned that some who attended the school before the asbestos-containment work face an increased risk of developing asbestos-related disease later in life.

Student athletes, coaches and grounds maintenance staff likely experienced the greatest exposures, according to the findings, which The Bee reported last month. The agency based its conclusions largely on EPA tests that found high asbestos levels in the soil and air at baseball diamonds, the running track and other areas of campus.

On Wednesday, John Wheeler, an ATSDR toxicologist, said at the hearing that the agency is considering setting up medical screening for Oak Ridge graduates and staff who think they may have been exposed. The agency also may solicit construction workers who have been working in asbestos soil for the past 10 or more years, he said.

Such health evaluations would include X-rays to look for signs of asbestos-related diseases on the lungs.

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Read more articles by Chris Bowman -- Bee Staff Writer

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