September 21, 2005

Court deals blow to landfill plans

The judge voids a needed BLM acreage swap. LA County's trash may go elsewhere.

The Press-Enterprise

A federal judge struck down a land exchange needed to allow one of the nation's largest landfills to be built near Joshua Tree National Park and filled by Los Angeles County garbage.

The judge, in a long-awaited ruling issued Tuesday, said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to consider all of the potential environmental consequences of permitting a landfill on the 3,481 acres that the federal agency traded to Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures. The property surrounds Kaiser's closed iron-ore pits, which would be the core of the landfill operation.

The company, in exchange, gave the bureau 2,486 acres of private land scattered throughout the Riverside County desert.

"The court concludes the BLM's record of decision was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law," U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin said in his 26-page opinion.

Timlin said the bureau failed to fully investigate how a landfill might affect bighorn sheep and the desert ecosystem. He also indicated that the BLM undervalued the land traded to Kaiser.

BLM and Kaiser spokesmen said they are not sure what will happen next.

"We'll make a determination of exactly what that (ruling) means and how we'll proceed from here," said the BLM's Doran Sanchez.

Terry Cook, a Kaiser spokesman, said it could take months to figure out whether the project can survive without the land swap. A company subsidiary, Mine Reclamation Corp. of Palm Desert, is the landfill developer.

"Frankly, we're taken aback by the decision," Cook said. But he added, "This project has faced legal and other challenges over the years and has always ultimately come out ahead."

Although Los Angeles County bought the landfill from Kaiser for $41 million, the final sale was contingent on the resolution of legal challenges and the money continues to be held in escrow, said John Gulledge, head of the LA County sanitation districts' solid-waste-management department.

"I can't see how the project can move ahead at this time and place," he said. "They (Kaiser) have to deliver a project with no court challenges and all the permits."

Cook said he fears Timlin's ruling could endanger several landfill-related permits issued by county, state and federal agencies.

The land swap needed to develop the open-pit mines into a landfill was challenged in two lawsuits filed five years ago by the National Parks and Conservation Association and two jojoba farmers who live near the site. The judge merged them into one case.

Donna Charpied, one of the plaintiffs, said she was elated by the ruling. She has fought the project since it was first proposed in 1988. The Kaiser property is less than two miles from wilderness areas in the national park and not far from Charpied's jojoba farm.

"This project is wrong," Charpied said, "and there's just not a right way to do a wrong thing."

She said she hoped Riverside County, which approved the landfill, would take another look at the project. County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who represents the desert district, said he had not seen the ruling yet and couldn't comment.

The landfill would take as much as 20,000 tons of garbage each day, hauled by train from Los Angeles County through San Bernardino and Riverside counties to the former mine north of Interstate 10 near Desert Center.

Riverside County would earn as much as $5 for each ton of garbage hauled across the county line and $1 per ton to buy wildlife habitat as part of the Coachella Valley's growth plan, Wilson has said.

The judge said the BLM fully analyzed the effects on desert tortoises, air quality and groundwater but failed in other environmental considerations.

Timlin said the bureau, in violation of federal law, failed to "take a hard look at the consequences" of the landfill on bighorn sheep, the surrounding ecosystem and the potential for increases in the populations of coyotes and ravens, which prey on the federally protected desert tortoise.

The judge also found the BLM had failed to consider the potential value of the public land it traded to Kaiser.

"The court concludes that BLM's failure to consider an income-producing landfill as a potential highest and best use was an abuse of discretion," he wrote.

Timlin left it up to the BLM to decide whether it would try again to work out the land swap.

Los Angeles County is not waiting for the Eagle Mountain dispute to be resolved. The county wants to develop the Mesquite landfill in Imperial County because one of its major landfills, near Whittier, is nearing capacity, Gulledge said.

"That's our No. 1 task now," he said. "We are moving forward to have a functional waste-by-rail program by January of 2010."

Eagle Mountain landfill History

  • 1988-89: Eagle Mountain landfill is proposed at a former iron-ore mine. Kaiser Ventures applies to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a land exchange necessary for landfill operations.
  • 1994: A Superior Court rules that an environmental report from Riverside County and the BLM is deficient.
  • 1997: BLM approves a revised environmental report. The land exchange is tentatively approved.
  • 1999-2000: Two lawsuits are filed in federal court to stop the landfill.
  • 2005: U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin strikes down the land swap.