December 7, 2007

Let land swap stand, former owners urge

Eagle Mountain Landfill

The Press-Enterprise

A land swap struck down by a federal judge two years ago should be overturned, allowing one of the nation's largest landfills to be built in a mine pit near Joshua Tree National Park, an attorney for Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures argued before a federal appellate panel Thursday.

Leonard Feldman said Kaiser's former iron-ore mining operation -- which carved four large pits in the mountainous desert area in Riverside County less than two miles from the park -- already damaged the land. To use another location for a landfill would unnecessarily scar more land, he said.

"Literally, it is an abyss. It's a very scarred and disturbed piece of land. ... It makes sense to put a landfill in there," he told the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena.

At issue in the case is a 1999 land swap in which the U.S. Bureau of Land Management gave Kaiser 3,481 acres of public land around the former Kaiser Steel Co. mining pits to be used for the landfill operation. In return, Kaiser gave the BLM almost 2,500 acres along its 52-mile rail line that heads toward the Salton Sea. To compensate for the 1,000-acre difference, Kaiser paid the BLM $20,100, or essentially $20 an acre.

"It seems like the government got a bad deal," Circuit Judge Richard Paez said.

Environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association, the Glen-Avon based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, and Donna and Larry Charpied, jojoba farmers who live near the mine site, have argued that the land swap was improper.

They won much of their case in 2005 when U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin, then based in Riverside, ruled that the BLM gave away the public land below market value and failed to fully consider all of the potential environmental consequences of the landfill.

Kaiser sold the landfill property in 2000 to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County for $41 million, pending the outcome of legal matters. It would be designed to take as much as 20,000 tons of garbage each day, hauled by train.

Environmental groups argued that the BLM didn't consider that the landfill would be a profit-making business when it did the swap, thus selling the land too cheaply.

Tamara Rountree, a U.S. Justice Department appellate attorney, said the BLM "expressly and exhaustively considered the landfill as a use."

Noah Long, a Stanford law student representing the National Parks Conservation Association, argued that the lack of market demand for that land did not justify that it be used for a landfill, and suggested the BLM inflated the need for a landfill in granting the swap.

After the hearing, the environmental groups said they were hopeful because a 9th Circuit ruling in 2000 overturned an earlier lower-court ruling that had upheld a similar land swap between the BLM and another company for a landfill in Imperial County.

Attorneys for both sides expected a decision by this panel to take at least six months.