El Dorado County officials on Wednesday announced an aggressive plan to reduce the threat of the region's asbestos hazard and touted their effort as a national model.
In a press event arranged by a newly hired county public relations consultant, county Supervisor Helen Baumann outlined several new measures to tighten construction-dust controls, toughen enforcement of those rules and better inform foothills residents about the region's naturally occurring asbestos.
The enforcement effort, which has been limited to the small staff of the El Dorado County Air Quality Management District, will be broadened vastly by enlisting the help of the "eyes and ears" of a wide variety of local government officials out in the field, including firefighters, sheriff's deputies and even workers with the El Dorado Irrigation District.
"The county supervisors and department directors really, really want to do whatever we can to make the community feel comfortable," said Baumann, whose district includes a portion of El Dorado Hills.
"It's not a political issue. It's not a land-use issue. It's a public health and safety issue," she said.
Baumann spoke at a new El Dorado Hills fire station, flanked by Fire Chief Larry Fry and Sheriff Jeff Neves and with a knot of county department heads behind her.
The county plans to draw a dozen employees from several departments to form a Dust Prevention and Enforcement Team. The larger inspection force will allow the local air district to routinely check on construction activity rather than have to rely on complaints from residents.
As the system now works, air district chief Marcella McTaggart said, "If we don't get a call about a site, chances are, we won't go."
Under new guidelines, Baumann said, the public will find it easier to report suspected violations of the dust rules with the creation on June 1 of a citizens hotline - (888) 394-4662 (FYI-4NOA).
And the county will try to have an inspector arrive at the site before the dust settles, with a promised response within 30 minutes of the call, Baumann said.
Furthermore, repeat or "negligent" violators automatically will be fined.
"We're approaching it kind of from a crime prevention program standpoint," said Laura Gill, the county's chief administrative officer.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who has supervised the agency's asbestos investigations in the foothills, praised the county's stepped-up plan.
"Sounds good. Very positive," said Dan Meer, who learned of the plan Wednesday.
Several of the announced measures are in line with recommendations the EPA and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry made earlier this month.
But Baumann said the plan is just another step in a long line of county asbestos-protection initiatives.
"We've been ahead of the curve, and we will continue to be ahead of the curve," Baumann said after the news conference.
Naturally occurring asbestos has been an issue of increasing concern for years as large-scale housing and road construction carve into the Sierra foothills. Belts of rock that bear veins of the fibrous minerals underlie several areas that are in the path of development. Earthwork can churn up the asbestos and release the cancer-causing fibers into the air.
On Wednesday, county officials said they were working to tighten rules governing construction in these serpentine rocks and other areas where asbestos is known to occur.
On June 28, county supervisors are scheduled to consider shrinking the areas requiring a county-approved dust mitigation plan - from an acre or more to jobs as small as installing a backyard swimming pool.
Spraying down dust, covering unearthed material, installing windscreens and washing tires are among the measures that the county typically requires.
Gill said the county is committing $257,000 to bolstering the public outreach and enforcement efforts. Of that, $180,000 will go toward hiring a geologist and an air quality specialist who will be based in county offices in El Dorado Hills. She said $20,000 was allocated for printed materials.
The figure also includes about $57,000 in state and federal funds to implement enforcement and educational programs in cooperation with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Wednesday's news conference was part of a public relations effort launched about two months ago, Gill said. She said about $5,000 has been spent to date. She is authorized to spend up to $10,000, and additional funding may be considered during discussion of the 2005-06 budget.
In addition to announcing the new protection measures, county officials hoped the news conference would counter reports in The Bee and other media that the county is not doing enough to protect residents.
"We want to be sure the media recognizes the continuing efforts," Baumann said before a small gathering of broadcast and newspaper reporters.
"We want to be recognized as being out front on this," Baumann said.
El Dorado County is one of several counties in the Sierra foothills, the Coast Range and the Bay Area struggling with ways to prevent exposure to naturally occuring asbestos. Asbestos veins also run through some cities in New York, Virginia and other eastern states.
"We have more expertise in dealing with naturally occurring asbestos in California and, we believe, nationally," Baumann said.
El Dorado's asbestos protection plan
Establish a citizens hotline at (888) 394-4662 (FYI-4NOA) to report dust from construction activity, effective June 1.
Respond within 30 minutes to dust complaints
Assess automatic penalty for repeat or negligent violators of dust rules.
Conduct pre-emptive inspections of construction sites.
Establish new position for county geologist, to inspect development plans and sites
Continuously update local geology map with newfound sites of naturally occurring asbestos.
Conduct dust-prevention training for builders, pool contractors and landscapers.
Offer outreach to area physicians on health effects of asbestos dust
Hold public forums on asbestos and dust prevention at El Dorado Hills Community Services District, 1021 Harvard Way, at 7 p.m. June 7 and June 9.
About the writer:
- The Bee's Chris Bowman can be reached at (916) 321-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.