Geology Trip

Tuesday, 2003-10-28; 05:30:00

Just an observation about things I've been learning in geology classes.

This past weekend I went on a trip to the New Idria Mining District, which is about 2-3 hours away from here, to the southeast of the Bay Area (out towards Hollister). It was a pretty fun trip, although it was one of those "van geology" trips where you go to a stop, hear a talk, and then get back in the van and drive somewhere else. It's not incredibly fun sitting in a van for a good portion of the day. But I digress.

This was for my Rocks and Minerals class (GES 80), and we got to see a lot of the minerals that we're learning to identify in class on the field trip, including cinnabar (which is a mercury bearing mineral) and benitoite (which is a very valuable mineral that is only naturally found in the New Idria Mining District). It's always much more fun to learn about geology in the field, even if it is a hot day and you have to drink lots of water.

We also camped out for the night between Saturday and Sunday -- I haven't slept under the stars in a long time. That was really cool: you can never see them at night when you're in an urban area. The only problem is that when I go to sleep I have to take off my glasses before I doze off, and that means I won't be able to see the stars. :P

Going on field trips is definitely a plus of being a geology major, especially since you get to know the people in your classes much better since you basically live with them for a few days. Given that the geology department is also pretty small (only about 15-20 majors), you get to know most of the people in the department very well.

One thing I've noticed about geology is while learning about the rocks, minerals, and processes going on in the Earth, you find that many times people make idiotic legislation about things due to either ignorance or fear. I have three examples.

The first one deals with acid mine drainages in the area where I went on my three-week summer geological field trip (I guess it was two summers ago). We went to an area in Montana that is very close to Yellowstone National Park. In this area, there was a gold mine that had been abandoned in the area, and water that was naturally seeping into the mine shafts and coming out the mine addits (basically the mine openings) was highly acidic (pH of around 3). The main problem of this mine drainage was that the acidic water was flowing downstream and eventually into larger streams and rivers, which adversely affected the drinking water for the region. So the EPA eventually decided, after studying the area, that it would plan to remediate the streams to a pH level of around 7.

The problem is that if you actually look at the geology and the rocks in the area, you'll find rocks that, when in contact with water, react with the water and release hydrogen ions -- this has the effect of lowering the overall pH of the water. In fact, if you do studies based of the pH of the water based on tree cores and other data in the region, you'll find that this pH level of 3 has actually been naturally occurring for thousands of years, much prior to the creation of the gold mine! So the EPA is going to be entirely unable to remediate the stream to a pH level of 7 because it's a naturally occurring acidity; this is assuming, of course, that they don't go to the ridiculous effort of actually removing all the rocks in this area that is causing this.

Another kind of ridiculous legislation is with surface water regulation. In my hydrogeology class (GES 130), we learned that in the 60s and 70s, regulations on dumping waste into water weren't that effective, because the fines weren't high enough. My professor actually worked at a factory that made truck axles, and my professor had asked one of the supervisors there why they were dumping their waste into the streams nearby -- he responded that it was easier to dump the waste into the water and pay the fines, instead of finding out how to properly dispose of the waste. Later on, the laws changed and made the fines significantly higher; however, the laws only applied to SURFACE water. So guess what companies did? They simply drilled wells, and injected their waste into the groundwater! Great legislation.

The most recent example of ridiculous legislation was something that I learned about on my geology trip this past weekend. We visited an asbestos mine in the New Idria Mining District. Now, contrary to what some of you guys might think, we actually didn't need to wear any masks or any protective equipment whatsoever. So why is there legislation that bans the sale of asbestos in the U.S.?

There are actually two forms of asbestos: one is derived from a parent rock called serpentine (which is actually the California state rock). This form of asbestos forms fibers because of the internal atomic structure which causes the layers of the rock to have a slight curl to them, and so the sheets that compose the rock form fibers. The second form of asbestos is derived from an amphibole rock -- the fibers in this type of asbestos are actually not due to curling, but are caused by the natural cleavage of the amphibole rock which creates the fibers.

It turns out that due to the differences between the two types of rocks, the asbestos that comes from the serpentine rock (which was the asbestos that naturally occurred at the mine we visited) are pretty harmless. The fibers do get stuck in your lungs, but your body is able to easily dissolve them with lung fluid, and so they only remain in your lungs for a matter of days. This is contrast to the other form of asbestos that is indeed harmful and can cause diseases such as cancer.

The things is, the EPA has imposed regulations on asbestos, banning the use and sale of it in the U.S., no matter what the form. This means that schools and buildings that used asbestos as an insulator have to spend millions of dollars to remove it, even though in many cases, there isn't any risk to the people who work in the building because the serpentine form of asbestos was used. Not only that, but the EPA has imposed artificial permissible levels of asbestos in the air at 0.5 fibers of asbestos per liter of air (if I remember correctly). Problem is, because of the natural occurrence of asbestos in California, these levels are pretty much exceeded everywhere in the state!

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that government agencies often don't make laws and regulations based on common sense or fact, but I try not to be too cynical about these things. It just surprises me that the these regulations haven't changed despite the mounting evidence against them.

Just a few, small notes about some other things: there's an election on November 4th, and this applies to most (if not all) counties across the state of California. Don't forget to vote! (Obviously, the registration date has already passed.) Also, I added another one of my articles to the sidebar... check it out. :)

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