The Bakersfield Californian today carries the latest in a string of press reports regarding the presence of naturally-occurring asbestos rock and soil in El Dorado Hills and El Dorado County, California (near Sacramento). Inhalation exposure to asbestos fibers can cause serious diseases (see below).
The newspaper reports on a recent study by federal EPA:
... contractors in white suits and respirators spent a week simulating child's play to measure exposure. In the name of science, they slid into the bases on the ball field, pedaled and jogged along a popular trail, played basketball and soccer and gardened behind an elementary school.
Compared to areas where no activity took place, cyclists created enough dust to be exposed to up to 43 times more asbestos; baseball stirred up as much as 22 times more asbestos; and soccer kicked up 16 times more asbestos.
While the situation has caused some degree of panic among El Dorado residents, no one has yet reached any firm conclusion regarding the actual health threat posed by by the rock and soil because (1) the threat depends on exposure, and perhaps on the level of exposure, to the asbestos fibers and (2) no epidemiological studies have yet been done. Per EPA's website on the El Dorado investigation:
There is no health threat if asbestos fibers in soil remain undisturbed and do not become airborne. When inhaled, these thin fibers irritate tissues and resist the body's natural defenses. Asbestos, a known carcinogen, causes cancers of the lung and the lining of internal organs, as well as asbestosis and other diseases that inhibit lung function.
EPA says it is studying whether or not its study's findings require emergency response action, presumably under CERCLA, 42 USC Section 9601 et seq. (also known as the "Superfund" law, previously discussed by this Blog in Posts of June 4 and 8, 2005): "The U. S. EPA has initiated efforts to convene a science advisory panel of health and asbestos experts to evaluate the data and answer a series of questions about the significance of the exposures."
Even assuming the exposures are deemed significant, however, it is not clear whether the El Dorado community can look to federal EPA to mitigate the community's asbestos problem. I have come upon no discussion of this issue; but it seems the issue is real.
CERCLA is essentially premised on the notion that certain categories of people (present owners/operators of contaminated property, etcetera) are responsible to respond to contamination; if such response is not forthcoming, then the federal government can expend funds to respond and, if appropriate, pursue the liable party for reimbursement. See 42 USC Section 9607.
However, in the El Dorado case, there are no "responsible people" (or, technically, "Responsible Parties")-- the asbestos is naturally-occurring. Even imaginative federal courts are probably not going to rule that Nature is a Responsible Party.
In fact, CERCLA Section 9604 (a) (3) acknowledges this point by prohibiting the federal government from responding
to a release or threat of release--
(A) of a naturally occurring substance in its unaltered form, or altered solely through naturally occurring processes or phenomena, from a location where it is naturally found...
This prohibition on expending federal effort is not absolute; Section 9604 (a) (4) contains an exception to (a) (3)'s prohibition where the feds determine that naturally-occurring contamination "... constitutes a public health or environmental emergency and no other person with the authority and capability to respond to the emergency will do so in a timely manner." Nonetheless, for the beleaguered residents of the El Dorado community, this ambiguity as to which government agency will ultimately take charge of the situation undoubtedly adds anxiety to the already-existing worries about health threats and declining property values.