A land grab is in the works in the El Dorado Valley, which lies between the cities of Henderson and Boulder City.

The rugged McCullough mountains tower over the valley as a natural barrier between the two cities. Scientists who have done extensive sampling or rocks from the McCullough’s say the mountains are loaded with natural asbestos.

The Henderson City Council voted earlier this month to annex more than 2,700 acres of mostly-vacant land in the El Dorado Valley with an eye toward ambitious development. But the one issue Henderson officials didn’t mention during their deliberations was asbestos.

The Henderson council members were unanimous in going after the El Dorado Valley. They want to build homes, businesses, and schools out there on the playa, but they conspicuously avoided any mention whatsoever of the “a” word. 

They are not the first government entity in Nevada to hope the asbestos issue would vanish merely by ignoring it.

If the annexation plan goes through, will Henderson let its residents know they would be building homes in the middle of asbestos fields?

Dr. Brenda Buck, a UNLV medical geologist, stops to pick up a rock in front of a public park on Adams Boulevard.

“It looks positive. Can’t prove it until you get it in the lab,” she said.

The discovery of a single piece of suspected asbestos on Adams Boulevard in Boulder City isn’t all that alarming by itself, given that the same street has a long stretch of open dirt that is chock full of asbestos fibers, right across the street from a neighborhood and a field filled with asbestos soil and rocks right in the front yard of Martha King Elementary School which is traversed daily by dozens of kids and adults.

How to minimize exposure to asbestos

Buck and her colleague Dr. Rod Metcalf confirmed their discovery of natural asbestos deposits almost three years ago but the school district has shown little interest, in part, because state health officials, hundreds of miles away in Carson City decreed that natural asbestos is no threat to public health.

For three years, state health officials and the school district declined to meet with Buck and Metcalf to talk about their findings. Instead, the state tried to shut down the study and stop the team from making the results public.

“They didn’t want anybody else to see the data,” Metcalf said. “They didn’t let us use it. We had to go get it from the CDC.

Just as state health and the school district have downplayed the risks from natural asbestos, the Henderson City Council didn’t mention it at all when voting to annex the El Dorado Valley so neighborhoods can be built there.

But other agencies take it very seriously. NDOT, the state transportation agency, conducted its own asbestos study and found that NOA — naturally occurring asbestos — “is not only present in the soil and rock, but also in the air” in the area where the I-11 bypass is being built. 

An NDOT study confirmed that the construction project could put more asbestos fibers into the air,  potentially exposing highway workers and nearby residents. 

Clark County Air Quality Management, which has more experience dealing with dust than any agency in Nevada, knows that winds often blow from the Boulder City area into the Las Vegas valley.

Asbestos fibers are tiny enough to stay aloft for days. Air quality officials met with the UNLV team and then posted advice for the public on how to minimize the risk.

George Knapp: “You know the state of Nevada health folks have said there is no risk at all from this. None. You guys have taken the point of view that maybe there is, and folks should be cautious?”

Gary Miller, Clark County Air Quality: “Correct.”

On its website, air quality advises locals to take precautions to limit exposure to dust, especially when the wind is blowing.

Buck and Metcalf say their research has also been confirmed by the federal EPA, which analyzed rock  samples from the elementary school and five other locations. EPA’s findings are a stark contrast to the agencies which want the asbestos issue to vanish. EPA’s report declared … “the concentration of fibers in the samples are high enough to raise considerable concern for local populations.” 

There’s another larger reason for concern regarding Buck’s discovery of a single suspicious rock in landscaping material at the public park in Boulder City. How did it get there?

“And who was hired to put it in, and who dug it up in the first place? Those people would have been exposed too,” she said.

The reason that one little rock should be of interest to the general public is that it most likely came from the gravel and soil pits that have operated for decades in the El Dorado Valley, the same valley targeted for development by Henderson officials.

Over centuries, erosion has caused the asbestos at the top of the mountains to cascade into the valley. Tests confirm it is in the dust that blows across the playa.

Also of interest to the geologists is a string of large sand and gravel pits at the base of the mountains. They’ve been operating for decades supplying landscaping and building materials to public and private projects throughout the southern Nevada.

Two of the pits are still active, and every day, trucks filled with material from these pits rumble down local roadways, with dust and sand spewing out behind them.

Although the pits haven’t been tested for asbestos, Buck says, it would likely be found there.

Nevada has no laws or standards regarding asbestos, because until Buck and Metcalf made their discoveries a few years ago, no one thought it could be found in geology like Nevada’s.

The gravel pits are not required to test for asbestos before they sell a load of material. A national association representing the rock and gravel industry makes this recommendation to any company wondering about asbestos in its product — if a federal agency hasn’t asked, don’t test.

The I-Team initiated a sampling program of its own. Random samples of landscaping was collected from spots all over the Las Vegas valley including samples from store which sell rock and gravel for home use. Each sample was assigned a number. The UNLV team was asked to take a look at the samples.

Of the 10 samples collected randomly, they identified four that they considered most likely to have asbestos. Those four samples were sent to Asbestos TEM Labs in Berkeley, California. Three of the four showed notable results.

“We found asbestos, actinolite that had been observed previously out in Boulder City, a little bit on one of the samples and quite a bit on the last sample you submitted,” said Mark Bailey

The sample with the highest concentration of fibrous asbestos was number 10, a rock that was picked up in a field outside of a King Elementary school in Boulder City.

Another sample which had asbestos was rock number 7, a rock obtained from a leading garden supply store. A third sample, number 9-A, was a major surprise to the lab. It’s a fibrous mineral called Hollandite, one of 400 or so asbestos like minerals not regulated by law. It was obtained from landscaping outside  an office building in downtown Las Vegas.

“This was definitely a very fibrous mineral. Who know if it could be hazardous or not,” Bailey said.

The amounts of asbestos in the samples is low, but scientists have confirmed that even extremely low exposures can cause health effects.

“We are finding rocks that have low amounts but enough certainly to be a health hazard,” Bailey said.

If you have asbestos in any of your landscaping, it is not necessarily dangerous so long as you limit your exposure.

How to minimize exposure to asbestos

Also, state health officials, who declined to meet with the UNLV research team, have changed their minds. They will have a face-to-face in August and they’ve also rescinded their ban against one team member from every using the Nevada Cancer Registry for research.