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EPA Stands Tall, Closes Public Recreation Area Due To Risk Of Asbestos Disease


Mothers, don't let your babies grow up to be botanists. Or birders, hunters, campers, or off-road hell-raisers. At least not at Clear Creek Management Area in central California.

Since 1979, when researchers at UC Berkeley confirmed that the Clear Creek recreational area contained huge amounts of lethal chrysotile, the federal government has been trying to decide what to do about this toxic playground. Site of the Superfund toxic dump site created by the defunct Atlas asbestos mines, off-roaders, birders, native plant enthusiasts, hikers, hunters, and families spend thousands of hours enjoying this natural wonderland.

On May 1, the Bureau of Land Management officially closed 31,000 acres of Clear Creek Management Area after the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the area was potentially lethal due to the high amounts of asbestos disturbed during even casual activities.

Deadly data

Rangers and other workers at Clear Creek regularly wear hazmat suits and employ decontamination procedures when leaving work to avoid bringing home lethal asbestos fibers to their unsuspecting families. Some recreational enthusiasts, however, have remained sanguine. The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group funded by off-road industry giants like Kawasaki, disputes the study's findings and promises an immediate legal battle.

The EPA report was released after a data-intensive survey that spanned more than four years and involved extensive on-site analysis using activity-based air sampling, fiber analysis using transmission electron microscopy, and nine days of intensive sampling for motorcycling, ATV riding, SUV riding, off-road vehicle riding, hiking, and camping.

Building on the more than one hundred years of empirical data that prove beyond any doubt that asbestos is a lethal carcinogen, the EPA's report unequivocally concluded that "There was no combination of scenario, toxicity value, or visits per year that was below the lower end of EPA's acceptable risk range," and that even one visit per year for recreational scenarios put users above EPA's acceptable risk range. The risks, concluded the study, "are still extremely high."

Mix-and-match carcinogens

The study found that deadly chrysotile asbestos at Clear Creek are mixed with other lethal forms of tremolite asbestos. Since the study only looked at the risk of death from asbestos-caused cancers like mesothelioma, EPA acknowledged that non-cancer effects, which were not considered by the study, "could actually be more significant to total disease outcome from Clear Creek Management Area asbestos exposure."

Refusing to pull any punches whatsoever, EPA concluded that total asbestos disease may have been significantly underestimated in the report.

The presence of this asbestos witches' brew and the kinds of people who were exposed to it raised particular concerns by EPA. In the anti-regulatory, pro-business environment of the early 21st Century, EPA's conclusions that Clear Creek asbestos posed particular dangers to children, and that recreation in the area threatened more extensive poisoning due to take-home exposures, were courageous in the face of the asbestos industry's coordinated attacks on asbestos regulation. EPA noted that in its breathing samples, children inhaled concentrations that exceeded those of adults. "The higher the exposure, the higher the risk," was one of the unmistakable, bulleted items in the summary of the report.

EPA refused to shy away from the corollary of its findings, either, concluding that reducing exposure will reduce the risk.

Sins of the fathers

The contamination of the recreation area occurs in tandem with the vast pollution caused by the closed Atlas asbestos mine. This Superfund site, in essence a gaping wound into mother earth that spews out toxic fiber, has cost the state and the federal government millions-far more than the pittance of tax dollars that Atlas ever paid.

Clear Creek is part of the New Idria formation, a serpentine rock body whose 31,000-acre outcrop is the largest asbestos deposit in the United States. Decades of asbestos mining and other extractive industries gradually stripped the already fragile and nutrient-poor soils from the lethal rock. The uptick in off-road activities and explosive population growth in the Bay Area has created a lethal dust bowl so fierce that even before EPA released its findings the Bureau of Land Management would routinely shut the entire area between the months of June and October.

The irony that serpentine, otherwise known as poisonous asbestos ore, is the state rock of California, is not lost on those who know the legislative history behind the act---it was suggested, pushed, and seen to execution by the California asbestos industry.

Drastic measures for drastic times

Closing off a paradise for hikers, birders, botanists, and off-road enthusiasts is a drastic measure but it points up the highly toxic nature of chrysotile. The situation at Clear Creek closely mirrors, unsurprisingly, the problems caused by industrial distribution of asbestos-containing products: chrysotile asbestos often occurs with tremolite. The "dead zone" declaration recognizes the scientific fact that there is no safe level of exposure, and even remote exposures to asbestos can cause mesothelioma.

The begs the question of what in the world the US Senate had in mind when it passed the Ban Asbestos Act, allowing manufacturers to contaminate their products with up to 1% asbestos. While the EPA, ever under assault from industry and from sham scientists, is courageously declaring Clear Creek a dead zone, the senate seems hell-bent on unleashing the devil's fiber into our homes and workplaces.

This strong stand by EPA deserves our appreciation and respect. Industry shills will certainly attack it, fearing that further federal imprimatur of danger on chrysotile will make it even harder for them to begin legally tainting their goods. Let's hope they're right