Last modified: June 7, 2021
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated multiple locations in California as Superfund sites. A number of these sites, which receive special cleanup attention from the EPA and are considered priorities, are in part the result of asbestos-related problems.
For example, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard made widespread use of asbestos. This threat led to EPA intervention and has endangered Navy veterans. Similarly, the W.R. Grace site processed asbestos-containing materials and contaminated the surrounding area, creating an environmental risk for nearby residents.
Naturally occurring asbestos (NOA) has also raised health concerns within the state. According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), 45 of California’s 58 counties have NOA deposits.
The entire city of Coalinga received Superfund status because mining and processing spread the area’s NOA throughout the town. This matter was worsened by the city’s asbestos mines, which primarily operated in the 1960s and 1970s.
California was home to the last asbestos operation in the U.S. — the King City Asbestos Company (KCAC) mine in the Coalinga asbestos district of San Benito and Fresno Counties. The KCAC mine worked a large chrysotile deposit in west-central California until it closed in 2002.
El Dorado Hills is another risky area, as it is home to one of the largest NOA deposits in the world. Care must be taken by all residents to minimize the risk of asbestos exposure.
With so many potential sources of exposure in California, asbestos litigation continues to be highly active in the state’s courts. In 2004, a Superior Court judge from San Francisco even said that asbestos cases made up 25 percent of the court’s docket.
Occupations and Environmental Areas at Risk
The following worksites and environmental areas are past or current sources of asbestos exposure in California. The state of California, the federal government, the EPA and other responsible agencies or companies have taken measures to remediate sites of asbestos contamination. Some of these measures are complete and some are ongoing.
California Naval Shipyard
Asbestos affected several locations in the now-closed West Coast shipyard, placing past workers at risk for asbestos-related health issues. In November 2003, the U.S. Navy released information regarding its plan to build a groundwater containment barrier and extraction trench on the site to prevent asbestos-contaminated groundwater and other harmful substances from making their way into the wetlands and tidal marshes near the facility. It was intended to be a temporary solution until a more permanent one could be implemented.
Hunters Point Naval Shipyard
The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in southeast San Francisco, established in 1869, was the first dry dock on the Pacific Coast. In the early 1940s, the shipyard was used solely by the Navy for shipbuilding, repair and maintenance activities. Like nearly all shipyards at the time, asbestos was used constantly. After World War II, activities in the shipyard ranged from ship repair to submarine servicing and testing. In 1987, tests confirmed the presence of hazardous chemicals and materials at the shipyard, including asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and lead. The EPA placed Hunters Point Shipyard on the Superfund National Priorities List, and the shipyard shut down in 1991.
In 1990, an estimated 226,000 square feet of asbestos-contaminated materials were removed from 24 areas on the site. The removal of asbestos-contaminated materials continued for years, and the Navy completed the asbestos abatement program in 1995. Since then, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has said that remaining asbestos does not pose a threat to the general public.
Moore Dry Dock Company
Even into the new millennium, juries are awarding large sums to plaintiffs in asbestos-related cases against Moore Dry Dock Company. In 2001, the family of a merchant seaman who served on two Moore-built cargo ships was awarded $700,000 in damages after the seaman died from mesothelioma. The jury found that in spite of the lack of public knowledge regarding asbestos, the United States Maritime Commission in 1942 had notified Moore and other companies of several industry studies showing asbestos as an occupational and industrial hazard.
In a 2000 case, a jury awarded $10.35 million to the husband of a woman who had worked in the Moore Dry Dock shipyard during World War II. The jury found that not only had the victim been exposed while working at the shipyard but also from fibers on the clothes of her husband who worked as a pipefitter for more than 30 years.
Other Superfund sites in California that could contain asbestos materials:
- Alameda Naval Air Station, Alameda
- Edwards Air Force Base, Lancaster
- El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Irvine
- Mather Air Force Base, Sacramento
- Sacramento Army Depot, Sacramento
- George Air Force Base, Victorville
- Tracy Defense Depot, Tracy
- Travis Air Force Base, Fairfield
- Concord Naval Weapons Station, Concord
- Castle Air Force Base, Atwater
- March Air Force Base, Riverside
- McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento
- Barstow Marine Corps Logistics Base, Barstow
- Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino
- Sharpe Army Depot, Lathrop
- Naval Air Station Moffett Field, Santa Clara
- Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant, Modesto
- Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, San Diego County
Former California Zonolite/W.R. Grace & Company Site
The former California Zonolite/W.R. Grace & Company site posed similar health concerns. The 2.75-acre California Zonolite facility was in operation from 1950 to 1977. In 1966, W.R. Grace & Company purchased the Glendale facility. The company used the facility to process vermiculite, which was shipped from Libby, Montana, and contained asbestos at levels of 0.3 percent to 7 percent. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the facility received more than 120,000 tons of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby.
An estimated 1,750 people lived within one mile of the site, all of whom may have suffered environmental exposure to asbestos debris. Additionally, ATSDR said an estimated 70 to 150 former W.R. Grace employees were exposed to asbestos on the job. W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy in 2001 amid mounting asbestos lawsuits.
Coalinga: The City and Its Mines
The area around Coalinga is rife with NOA. Mining has contaminated the town so badly that the EPA added the city to its Superfund list in 1989. The contaminated area was operated as an asbestos milling, manufacturing, storage and transportation center. In addition to numerous asbestos mines, the city had a warehouse, a storage yard and shipping yards, all of which handled asbestos and asbestos products.
The 120-acre Coalinga Asbestos Mine site switched hands a few times in the 1960s and 1970s, but mining continued there until 1977. Then, all operations ceased when it was proven the surrounding air, soil, sediments and surface water were contaminated with asbestos. Contamination was so rampant that the mine was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List. Cleanup ran until 1995, and in 1998, the mine was formally deleted from the priority list.
Coalinga’s Atlas Asbestos Mine site covered 435 acres and consisted of the asbestos mine, a processing mill and support buildings. The mine operated from 1963 until 1979, and cleanup activities ran from 1994 to 1996. Prior to cleanup, air, surface water, sediments and soils in the site were contaminated with asbestos. What’s left of the Atlas Asbestos Mine site now resides within the Clear Creek Management Area, a popular recreation area frequented by thousands of people each year.
The cleanup of the entire city, which concluded in the 1990s, consolidated an estimate of 20,000 cubic yards of asbestos, chromium and nickel-contaminated soil and building debris. Results of the EPA’s 2006 review showed that the site was safe and that no further action was necessary.
Clear Creek Management Area
The EPA has also performed testing inside California’s Clear Creek Management Area (CCMA), a 70,000-acre recreational area that is home to one of the largest asbestos deposits in the world. The CCMA contains a 30,000-acre deposit of serpentine rock — the type of rock in which asbestos forms. According to EPA testing that assessed risks to CCMA visitors, “There was no combination of scenario, toxicity value, or visits per year that were below the EPA acceptable risk range” for asbestos exposure.
EPA air tests indicated that motorcyclists who utilized a certain dirt course inhaled asbestos levels as high as nine times the legal exposure limits. The EPA concluded that “the risks are still extremely high” for asbestos exposure in CCMA. In August 2011, per the EPA’s recommendation, the Bureau of Land Management ordered the area’s closing during the dry season, when asbestos is most easily disturbed.
About 15 miles to the east of the Clear Creek Management Area and 37 miles northeast of Coalinga is the KCAC mine, which was the last operating asbestos mine in the U.S. when it closed in 2002.
The mine was founded in 1957 and began operation in 1963. It was part of more than 300 claims in the area by the United Carbide Nuclear Company.
King City Asbestos Company purchased the mine in 1985 and continued mining large asbestos deposits for nearly two decades.
The KCAC mine was also the last and longest-operating asbestos mine in the Coalinga area after the Coalinga Asbestos Company Mine closed in 1975 and the Atlas operation ceased in 1979.
El Dorado Hills
Like Coalinga, the California city of El Dorado Hills contains immense amounts of NOA. In a 2006 report, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stated that asbestos was so prevalent that simple outdoor activities, such as riding a bicycle, raised dust with high concentrations of asbestos. Air samples taken after activities were reported to contain 40 times the normal level of asbestos.
The county’s Air Pollution Control District encourages residents to take precautionary measures. El Dorado Hills residents are advised to wet soil before digging, to prevent dust from coming up, and to remove shoes before entering their homes, to prevent tracking in fibrous NOA. They are also advised to keep doors and windows closed on windy days or during construction. El Dorado County leaders, together with the local government of California and the federal government, continue to search for ways to protect residents from exposure to the region’s asbestos.
The South Bay Asbestos Area was added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in 1986. The 550-acre property in Alviso is home to three landfills that received asbestos wastes from a nearby asbestos-cement pipe manufacturing plant. Major cleanups took place in the 1980s and 1990s, and cleanup efforts are currently ongoing according to the EPA.
Some other Superfund sites in California known for asbestos contamination include:
- Industrial Waste Processing, Fresno
- Purity Oil Sales, Inc., Fresno
Treatment Centers in California
Doctors in California
With so many natural asbestos deposits and so much asbestos use, it’s no surprise that California has become a prime area for asbestos litigation. A significant portion of these lawsuits have centered around Hunters Point, as so many Navy veterans have developed mesothelioma. Below are some of the recent asbestos-related lawsuits in California.
- Garza v. Asbestos Corp.: Joseph Garza worked on ships at the Hunters Point shipyard and other Navy shipyards in the 1940s and 1950s. He repaired boilers using Asbestos Corporation products. He was not told about the dangers of asbestos, nor was he given protective gear. Garza was later diagnosed with asbestosis because of this asbestos exposure. In July 2006, Garza and his wife Mary were awarded more than $11 million in their case against Asbestos Corporation. The state Court of Appeals upheld the award in March 2008.
- Todak v. Foster Wheeler Corp.: Alfred Todak served in the U.S. Navy from 1960 to 1962, working at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and other West Coast bases. He also worked as a civilian on Navy vessels in Seattle from 1967 to 1972. Todak did electrical work inside boiler rooms in ships that were being refurbished and overhauled. Foster Wheeler Corporation designed, manufactured and supplied the boilers, which had asbestos-contaminated components. As a result, Todak was later diagnosed with mesothelioma. In 2002, the jury awarded Todak and his wife more than $33 million damages.
- Trinchese v. Union Carbide: Victor Trinchese worked at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard from 1969 to 1980. As an electrician, he installed Bakelite resin switches approved by the U.S. military for use in high-voltage systems. These switches, which were made by Union Carbide, contained a high amount of asbestos. Trinchese sued after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Union Carbide was found partially liable for his illness, and Trinchese was awarded more than $2 million.
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