The land in question is a high, rolling hillside, where California’s Central Valley slopes into the Sierra foothills. Many have been drawn here, and after the first stampede, for gold in 1849, most left disappointed. Then the land lay virtually empty for many years until, as the state capital grew, its emptiness became valuable. In the late 1970s, as the local Chamber of Commerce tells it, a developer was traveling along U.S. Highway 50 when, 25 miles east of Sacramento, he looked up and had a vision.
Grand homes started to appear, followed by fine schools, lush golf courses, and a central shopping district modeled after a Tuscan village. The entire hillside was transformed into a patchwork of gated communities, and over the past 15 years, El Dorado Hills, as developers dubbed the spot, has been one of the fastest-growing areas in California. “High per capita income along with low crime rates have attracted many new families to this vibrant and desirable destination of the future,” says the Chamber of Commerce’s website. “As the name ‘El Dorado’ translates, this is a land of golden opportunity!”
Some residents of the bedroom community like to think of it as the next Silicon Valley, but the president of the Chamber of Commerce admits there are few jobs, and “the one thing very different about El Dorado Hills” is that no one has to be here. Almost no one leaves either, which is surprising when you consider that what lies beneath these hills isn’t gold but something potentially deadly.
Housing developers and real estate agents don’t like talking about the dark side of paradise (see “Take My Breath Away,” page 70), so I had to rely on Terry Trent to give me an unofficial tour. Trent, a 50-ish retired construction consultant, no longer lives in El Dorado County but admits that his former home has become something of an obsession. “There are some really dangerous things in the ground,” he said as we drove down the main street, El Dorado Hills Boulevard. Talking nonstop, Trent pointed to the hillside that forms the spine of the town, which, according to his map from the state’s Division of Mines and Geology, contains a vast deposit of naturally occurring asbestos.
There are similar deposits all over California; serpentine, a primary source of asbestos, is the state rock. It’s not dangerous—unless it becomes airborne dust and gets in your lungs. The trouble is, in El Dorado Hills, dust isn’t just a fact of life but a sign of progress. “Here in the mountains, we don’t let no rocks stand in our way,” Trent said. Over the past 10 years, as the town’s population has doubled to around 35,000, hundreds of bulldozers have scraped over this ground, clearing land for thousands of new homes. In that earth is a form of asbestos—amphibole—that’s significantly more toxic than the type commonly used commercially.
Trent’s map of the amphibole deposits was made 50 years ago. Still, most residents were unaware of the asbestos until 11 years ago, when Trent uncovered a huge, glistening vein of it in his yard. He went to the local papers with the news, and there was a brief outcry. But the construction went on, and most of El Dorado Hills has been built in the years since.
Turning onto Harvard Way, Trent stopped before a grassy embankment that he claims is shot through with asbestos. “You can see how they carved through it to build this road,” he said. He recalled watching as construction crews gouged out a spot for a new middle school nearby, crushing the excavated rock and transporting the gravel to become the foundation for the new community center. A half-mile stretch of Harvard Way was covered in dust, he said, for months.
Nine years ago, tests commissioned by the Sacramento Bee found high concentrations of amphibole fibers inside Trent’s home. He moved soon afterward. To this day, he still can’t understand why few of his former neighbors seem concerned about the threat beneath them, or why the town is still fully occupied, its homes still worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I don’t like to be mean,” he said, “but I’m a little cranky with these people. It’s like they’re in shock. They don’t want this stuff to exist; therefore, they put their heads in the sand. They say, ‘Well, it’s not here, and it’s not bad, and here, I’ll prove that it’s not here and it’s not bad.'”
In the fall of 2004, agents from the Environmental Protection Agency descended on El Dorado Hills in respirators and protective suits and headed for a town park. There, they began playing as children would—tossing baseballs, kicking soccer balls, biking, and running. All the while, they took air samples, and all the while they were quietly watched by the citizens of El Dorado Hills.
The civic leaders of El Dorado Hills had spent many months trying to stave off these tests, scrambling to protect the community not from potentially toxic substances, but from the epa‘s potentially toxic information. Taking the lead was Vicki Barber, the superintendent of schools. A stout woman with compressed lips and an unwavering gaze, she recently won an award for being “a person who does not accept the word ‘no’…when it comes to what is good for students.” After asbestos was found during the construction of a high school soccer field in 2002, Barber questioned a costly epa-mandated cleanup. When a citizen formally asked the epa to test the town’s public areas for asbestos in 2003, Barber quickly emerged as the agency’s most determined local foe. Before the study was even under way, she began writing to the epa as well as to senators and congressmen, questioning whether the agency had the “legal and scientific authority” to conduct what she called a “science experiment” with “limited benefit to the residents.” At least four state legislators and one congressman responded by putting pressure on the epa, which in turn agreed not to declare El Dorado Hills a Superfund site, regardless of what it might find there.
In May 2005, the epa announced its findings: Almost every one of more than 400 air samples collected at the park, as well as along a hiking trail and in three school yards, contained asbestos fibers. Most of the samples contained amphibole fibers known as tremolite—long, thin strands that, when inhaled, tend to wedge in the lungs for much longer and at higher concentrations than other forms of asbestos, even at very low exposure levels.
The correlation between amphibole asbestos and lung disease has been demonstrated around the world, from Canada to Cyprus, and perhaps most convincingly in the mining town of Libby, Montana, where hundreds of residents have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and many have died. After reviewing the epa‘s findings in El Dorado Hills, a Canadian epidemiologist told the Fresno Bee that the area’s exposure levels were comparable to those in towns where mining had gone on for a century. “You can certainly say people are going to die, and there are going to be increased cases of cancer,” he said. “I wouldn’t live there. I wouldn’t want my family to live there.”
The epa, however, avoided making such dire statements. Its report neither specified how toxic the samples were nor quantified the health risk to the residents of El Dorado Hills. Rather, it simply noted that the exposure levels were “of concern.” Jere Johnson, who oversaw the study, explained that the agency was trying not to sound alarmist. “We wanted to inform the community without scaring them,” she said.
But local officials received the epa‘s findings almost as a declaration of war on El Dorado Hills and its way of life. Jon Morgan, the director of the county’s environmental management department, thundered to a local television station that the tremolite announcement “may unnecessarily scare the living daylights out of every man, woman, and child in El Dorado County and could possibly devastate the county for years to come.”
When I visited El Dorado Hills, more than a year after the epa had run its tests, I was told over and over that the biggest threat facing the town was big-government intrusion. “The issue is not asbestos,” declared James Sweeney, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “The issue is the epa.” Superintendent Barber said that El Dorado Hills is like any other community in California, “and yet why is it that the epa has decided to focus on only here?” One county supervisor claimed that an epa official had told her he was going to make El Dorado Hills “a poster child for asbestos.” “What I heard,” town general manager Wayne Lowery said, “is that the Libby, Montana, project is being wrapped up and they have all these employees with training, and they’re looking for a place to keep them employed.”
What were officials supposed to do with the epa‘s information, wondered Debbie Manning, the president of the Chamber of Commerce. “Are you just going to make it a ghost town?” There was no need to rush to judgment until all the facts had been determined. “I’m sure you know that asbestos is a complicated issue,” she told me, explaining that there had been a locally led effort to get the information out about asbestos. Fortunately, El Dorado Hills is a highly educated community, she said, and you can trust that “with good information, people can make proper decisions.”
One of those struggling to do just that was Vicki Summers, a 47-year-old mom who said that her chief duty was to protect her two children from “any type of health issues.” Surrounded by stuffed animals, she sat on a couch in her spacious living room, her eyes darting as she spoke of the dangers they faced. “Every day in the newspaper, there’s something new,” she said—chemicals in the water, mad cow disease, bird flu. She often felt overwhelmed, especially when experts said different things. Summers had guzzled green tea for its anticancer benefits until she heard it caused colon cancer. She had gorged on fish during her first pregnancy, thinking it was “brain food,” only to be told, while expecting her second child, that mercury could cause brain damage.
The same sort of thing had happened to her dad. When she was a girl, he had made a point of buying margarine because he wanted to protect his family from cholesterol. “And now he’s had three strokes,” she explained, “and they say it’s the plaque buildup from the hydrogenated vegetable oil.” So much conflicting information was almost paralyzing. “It would be better to be ignorant,” she said, “because then you wouldn’t have to be stressed out by all this.”
Summers called her home her “dream house,” and said she had long considered El Dorado Hills “heaven on Earth,” but when she heard about the asbestos, her first thought was, “If this is Love Canal, and there’s going to be a mass exodus, I don’t want to be the last one out.”
But no exodus from El Dorado Hills ever began. Many residents seemed oddly comforted by the apparent uncertainty of the situation. Just after the epa report came out, Summers joined a thousand other citizens in the town gym, looking for answers. There, school superintendent Barber reassured the crowd that the town was “deeply committed to maintaining public health and safety.” Then she ripped into the epa report for offering no solid “risk information.” She pointed out there had been no abundance of “pulmonary cases” in the area. In other words, with nobody getting sick or dying, there was no real evidence of any hazard, so why worry? “Risk is a part of all of our lives,” Barber said. “But we also need to keep it in perspective.” She received enthusiastic applause.
Scientists, however, are more certain about the dangers of asbestos. There is no known safe exposure level to asbestos, whether it is in a commercial or a natural form; even low doses can cause malignant mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer. And the evidence keeps mounting. In the summer of 2005, researchers from the University of California-Davis Department of Public Health Sciences announced the findings of a study comparing the addresses of 2,900 Californians suffering from malignant mesothelioma against a geological map of the state. They concluded that the risk of developing lung cancer was directly related to how close the patients had lived to areas of rock associated with naturally occurring tremolite asbestos. (Likewise, the odds of getting mesothelioma drop 1 percent for every mile one moves away from an asbestos source.) As one of the authors explained, “We showed that breathing asbestos in your community is not magically different from breathing asbestos in an industrial setting.”
All of this passed over El Dorado Hills like clouds in the blue sky. County supervisor Helen Baumann’s reaction to the UC Davis report was that “there are studies counter to that.” Local government would “err on the side of public health and safety,” she said, “until some better science comes forward.”
So began the effort to live in El Dorado Hills without coming into contact with the earth. In the park and the school playing fields where the epa had collected samples, workers trucked in clean soil to replace two feet of topsoil, as the agency had recommended. The county banned using leaf blowers on town property, “except for emergency situations.” Residents were encouraged to take precautions such as removing their shoes before entering their homes, driving slowly with the windows up on unpaved roads, and “limiting time spent on dirt.” Home-builders agreed to spray down building sites and rinse off their trucks’ tires after work. Any sightings of “fugitive dust” were to be reported to a new “dust enforcement” team.
Life in El Dorado Hills under the new regime was “manageable,” said Baumann. That seemed to be the point of the show: If you took a few precautions, there was no need to panic. She proudly pointed out that the dust hot line rarely received a call. Gerri Silva, the interim director of the county department of environmental management, told me the measures had worked so well that in all of El Dorado Hills, “there is no dust.”
In the town’s main coffee shop, Bella Bru, languor pervaded as well. An engineer named Matt Parisek said that asbestos was “pretty much a fake issue.” “It’s pretty obvious [the epa] selected this county because of our conservative Republican reputation,” he said. And, wondered retiree Carole Gilmore, “If asbestos is all over California, I don’t know why they zero in on El Dorado Hills.”
Real estate broker Charles Hite, who is the current resident of Terry Trent’s old house, pointed out that none of his neighbors had died. “If it is such a health hazard,” he asked, “why are people still buying and building? Why are real estate prices going up? Why doesn’t government shut the city down?”
There was a circular logic at work. The local government had told everyone to stay calm, and so residents weren’t afraid. And if no one was scared, then perhaps there was nothing to fear. “The vast, vast majority” trusted that they were safe, said Baumann. But, she added, there remained “a very, very small centralized group that keeps pushing issues and pushing issues to the extreme.” She specifically mentioned Terry Trent, who to this day sends regular, dire emails to residents, reporters, and scientists. The group of extremists who “do not represent our community” also included, in Baumann’s view, some members of a community group that meets monthly to discuss asbestos.
Vicki Summers had joined the Asbestos Community Advisory Group as part of her effort to educate herself. When someone would mention the low body count as evidence that nothing was wrong, she could now cite the UC Davis study, or note that the latency period for asbestos-related diseases is about 30 years. Who lived in these hills back then, she asked, “a dozen ranchers?” Other parents assumed that if they couldn’t see asbestos in the air, it wasn’t there; Summers could picture invisible fibers burrowing into her kids’ lungs. “It never disappears,” she said, wide-eyed. “That’s the scary thing. And it’s a known carcinogen. has And if we know that, we know it’s not good for our kids.”
Summers said she was thinking only of her family when, at a community meeting, she passed a note to an epa official, asking, “Should I move?” After that was reported by a newspaper, she received an answer in an anonymous, late-night phone call: “Vicki Summers, I think you should move!”
Short of evacuating, there are only two ways to solve El Dorado Hills’ asbestos problem: Either pave over every asbestos deposit in town—an impossible task—or make the asbestos magically disappear. Soon after the epa report came out, Superintendent Barber got in touch with the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, an industry trade group, which commissioned the R.J. Lee Group to scrutinize the epa‘s data. In 2000, it was reported that R.J. Lee’s president, Richard Lee, had been paid about $7 million for testifying more than 250 times on behalf of the asbestos industry. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found asbestos in Crayola crayons, it was Lee who did a study that discovered none. When people began getting sick and dying in Libby, Montana, R.J. Lee found that local asbestos levels had been overstated by the epa.
As in Libby, R.J. Lee declared that what the epa had been calling asbestos in El Dorado Hills was, in fact, not asbestos at all. Some of the fibers were not the proper size; others contained a bit too much aluminum. The epa had, in other words, completely goofed.
Supervisor Baumann hailed “a study that has profound information in it.” Barber bustled off to Washington, D.C., at taxpayer expense, carrying news of “this startling scientific development.” And Wayne Lowery, the town manager, admitted it was hard to get excited about controlling asbestos “when you’ve got two different interpretations of the same data.”
At a meeting of the Asbestos Community Advisory Group in the fire station last winter, Summers and a handful of other residents met with the epa‘s Jere Johnson to try to understand how asbestos could vanish before their eyes. Two builders were also at the table. Baumann seemed to have been thinking of them when, at an earlier county supervisors’ meeting, she had issued a “public thank you” to “the very, very smart people attending those meetings, making sure another thought process is heard.”
One of the builders introduced R.J. Lee’s report and started to expound on “cleavage fragments,” mineral composition, microns, and the like. “I don’t want to get bogged down with these semantics,” a fireman interrupted. “We know we have it here.” The group’s chairman shushed him, though, saying he didn’t want to get bogged down in semantics either, “but I think we almost have to.” The builder persisted with his mantra of scientific uncertainty. “We all wish science to be this nice black-and-white thing,” he said, “and sometimes it isn’t.” The debate seemed essentially over by the time the epa‘s Johnson clarified the topic: It was not geology but public health. “The body can’t tell the difference between a fragment and a fiber,” Johnson said. Whatever you called it, it would still get stuck in your lungs.
For Summers, the starkness of the issue had again faded to gray. When she started looking for a safer place to live, she was alarmed at first to realize there were cancer clusters and crime everywhere, and then she had taken comfort in danger. If nowhere on Earth was completely safe, she reasoned, why should she leave El Dorado Hills? Perhaps it was as Vicki Barber had said: Risk is a part of all of our lives. Her family could stay, she decided, as long as she took precautions, such as wiping down her home with damp rags, and kept pushing to get all the facts. And if new studies revealed the asbestos to be “just fragments and dust,” well, she admitted, she’d be “thrilled to death.”
But she knew otherwise, didn’t she? She knew that asbestos was here, and she knew that it was bad? The question silenced her. “I don’t want to know it, though,” she finally answered. “I don’t want to know it. That’s when I can’t sleep. I mean, I love it here. I love it here. That’s why it’s hard. Part of me wants to be in denial.”
After reviewing R.J. Lee’s report on El Dorado Hills, the epa declared last spring that the company had violated “generally accepted scientific principles.” R.J. Lee, in turn, discovered “a number of important differences of opinion as well as factual misstatements” in the epa‘s response. The epa at last asked the U.S. Geological Survey to step in and do its own testing. In December, the usgs announced that its analysis confirmed that “material that can be classified as tremolite asbestos is” in El Dorado Hills. But the geologists were uncomfortable assessing the health risks, and so the controversy continues.
Supervisor Baumann thought the epa should just leave El Dorado Hills be. Her constituents had “really calmed down, been educated.” Why, she wondered, would anyone want to excite them again? The publichealth debate seemed to have come full circle when Sweeney, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, griped about the “extreme cost” of dust controls, saying, “We’re putting our public at risk by telling them to do things that are absolutely unnecessary.”
Up on the ridge, behind the high school, Terry Trent stood beside a driveway with a piece of tremolite in his hand. As he tossed the rock back to the ground, there was the sound of a small engine starting. “Watch this,” Trent said, and a smile broke over his face as a gardener passed by with a leaf blower, dust billowing all around.