The Board of Supervisors in San Benito County, California, unanimously voted to reopen county roads that had been closed for nearly two years due to the discovery of the largest asbestos deposit in the United States. Officials with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the Clear Creek Management Area closed when investigators discovered an asbestos deposit that snaked through more than thirty thousand acres of protected federal land.
The affected area covers seventy thousand acres in portions of San Benito County and neighboring Fresno County and is under the control of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The EPA investigation found high concentrations of asbestos on the land, which area residents had previously used as a recreational area. EPA officials forced the closure and that the levels of asbestos found there could cause health problems. The agency requested that the BLM find another use for the land.
San Benito County lawmakers decided to reopen the roads after area residents threatened to sue. Although the roads will reopen, the rest of the area, which included locations for camping, hiking and off-road activities, will remain closed. Drivers on these roads may be advised to take precautions to avoid asbestos exposure, as vehicle traffic can disturb the asbestos deposits and cause the dangerous fibers to become airborne.
In December 2009, the BLM published an environmental impact statement regarding the potential dangers involved with the area. The document, which totaled over seven hundred pages, described seven options that the Bureau had under consideration. The most severe of those options would include a permanent shutdown of the area. For now, the agency has opted to allow non-motorized traffic through the area. Officials believe that this option allows residents to travel through the affected lands while minimizing the risks of asbestos exposure.
The four-year EPA investigation found high concentrations of both the chrysotile and amphibole varieties of the raw asbestos mineral. While samples of the chrysotile type were much more plentiful, the presence of amphibole asbestos caused much of the concern. Gene Johnson, the EPA project manager who led the study, noted that amphibole asbestos has the highest likelihood of inducing mesothelioma and other forms of cancer to those individuals who inhale its dust.
Dr. Wayne Berman, president and founder of the environmental consulting firm Aeolus, said that comparing chrysotile to amphibole “fiber to fiber” shows that amphibole is “more hazardous” than chrysotile “especially in regards to mesothelioma”. Although only eight percent of the deposits in Clear Creek are amphibole, Dr. Berman said that even such a small concentration would “dominate the overall risk”.
Rick Cooper, the BLM field manager for the area, said that his office will reconsider the options and draft a new plan by mid-summer. Mr. Cooper authorized the shutdown of Clear Creek after releasing the EPA’s findings. The basis for his decision was the conclusion that “if you go out there (to Clear Creek) and play out there, you will be exposed to high levels” of asbestos. He expects to complete the analysis of the new plan and release details to area residents by mid-September.