November 11, 2009

Court nixes proposal for dump near Joshua Tree

Plan would have created ‘largest landfill in the U.S.'

Colin Atagi
The Desert Sun

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a lower court's rejection of a plan — 20 years in the making — that sought to turn a former iron ore mine near Joshua Tree National Park into the “largest landfill in the United States,” according to the decision.

Tuesday's ruling was a setback for proponents of the controversial Eagle Mountain Landfill, who say it would bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the Coachella Valley and the surrounding region.

But landfill opponents called Tuesday's ruling a “landmark victory” for the animals who call the national park home and the more than 1.3 million people who visit the park every year.

The appellate court's 2-1 decision upheld a 2005 district court decision that overturned the land exchange needed for the 4,654-acre Eagle Mountain Landfill, which was proposed for a former iron ore mine near Joshua Tree National Park.

“Thank God this thing is over; it's been going on for more than 20 years,” said Eagle Mountain resident Donna Charpied, who lives two miles from the proposed site with her husband, Larry. “It's time for the government to stop with this nonsense.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Timlin said in September 2005 the proposal was based on a flawed land swap between the Bureau of Land Management and developer Kaiser Ventures because the government undervalued the property.

Under the land deal, the government provided 3,481 acres near Joshua Tree to Kaiser.

In exchange, Kaiser offered the government 2,486 acres of private land plus $20,100.

Meanwhile, partner Mine Reclamation Corp. of Palm Desert agreed to sell its interest to Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County for $41 million.

Rick Stoddard, Kaiser's chairman and chief executive, said he believes his company's environmental analysis was “more than adequate.”

“Our steadfast belief continues to be that the Eagle Mountain landfill's environmental analysis was more than adequate and that the proper legal procedures were followed in completing the land exchange,” he said.

The company plans to seek a review of the decision by a broader panel of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges, Stoddard said.

The project site, which is surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park, could have received as much as 20,000 tons of Los Angeles County trash on a daily basis. The landfill's total capacity would have been 708 million tons.

Proponents, including the late Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, argued the landfill would have benefited the Coachella Valley by creating jobs and generating nearly $1 billion for the county.

Opponents argued the landfill would have harmed the wildlife and air quality in the desert and Joshua Tree. As many as 1,500 people live in the area during winter, Charpied said.

“I wouldn't care if it was just three people affected; they shouldn't put garbage on a train and travel 200 miles and pollute the finest air quality in the nation,” she said.

The landfill would attract ravens and coyotes, which prey on young desert tortoises, while limiting the amount of space for bighorn sheep, said Mike Cipra, California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“There's a really robust and healthy population of desert bighorn sheep, and the health of that sheep depends on their ability to move,” he said. “If the sheep are isolated over time, they'll eventually going to have a lot of inbreeding and potentially not survive.”