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Not in Their Back Yard

When the EPA discovered asbestos in their Little League fields, the residents of idyllic El Dorado Hills rushed to protect themselves—from reality.

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.

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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.

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