July 1, 2015

Eagle Mountain hydropower plant takes big step forward

A massive iron ore mining pit at Eagle Mountain in the remote desert east of the Coachella Valley. The Eagle Mountain iron mine was built in 1948 and closed in 1982. Today, some conservationists believe the old mine should become part of Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides. Eagle Mountain is just miles from the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar plant, which is set to come fully online in January, and the small town of Desert Center. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

A controversial proposal to build a hydropower plant in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, in a surprising development that frustrated conservationists but encouraged some renewable energy advocates.

After two decades of trying to acquire the old Eagle Mountain iron mine — which was carved out of the southeast corner of Joshua Tree more than 60 years ago — the Eagle Crest Energy Company has finally succeeded. The Los Angeles-based firm announced Wednesday that it has purchased the site from the company formerly known as Kaiser Ventures, which built the long-dormant iron mine and for years refused to sell.

Eagle Crest's plan to build a 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plant — using billions of gallons of groundwater that would be drawn from an underground aquifer — still has to overcome several regulatory obstacles. But the proposal is now closer than ever to becoming a reality.

The project's backers say it would help California build more solar and wind power, a key priority as the state moves toward a 50 percent renewable energy mandate. The hydroelectric plant would work like a battery, storing excess energy generated by solar and wind farms when supply exceeds demand, and then releasing that energy when demand exceeds supply.

"As Riverside County continues to increase its role in delivering renewable power to the rest of California, we need to find ways to store energy for use at times when solar and wind are not generating power," county Supervisor John Benoit said in a statement released by Eagle Crest. "This project helps make renewable energy sources more viable, and in an environmentally sensitive manner."

But conservation groups and national parks advocates have slammed the proposal, saying it would waste water, harm several threatened species and use more energy than it generates. Many of them want to see Eagle Mountain added to Joshua Tree National Park, saying it has historic value as a well-preserved mining boomtown, in addition to conservation value.

"The costs significantly outweigh the benefits here," said David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Whether you're looking at it from the angle of water or the angle of wildlife, this corporation wins and the public loses."

Nothing is simple when it comes to Eagle Mountain, which has been the subject of fiery debate in recent years.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser founded the iron mine and built the adjacent town in the 1950s, but the mine was shut down in the early 1980s as production of steel in the United States waned. For more than 25 years, the Kaiser subsidiary that still owned the site wanted to sell it to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which would have turned it into a massive garbage dump. But that plan got tied up in court, and eventually the agency backed off.

Even when that plan fell through, Kaiser officials insisted they wouldn't sell the site to Eagle Crest, saying they had received a great deal of interest from mining companies. Eagle Mountain still has millions of tons of iron ore.

The deal with Eagle Crest is something of a compromise, because Kaiser will retain the right to sell rock and iron ore tailings that already sit in plain view at Eagle Mountain. A Kaiser representative didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but the company will presumably try to sell that right to another company, since it has been in bankruptcy for several years.

That deal will no doubt frustrate conservationists, who oppose the hydropower plant as well as further mining.

In order to fill the reservoirs of the hydroelectric plant, about nine billion gallons of groundwater would be pumped from the aquifer under the Chuckwalla Valley over a period of four years. Eagle Crest officials have argued that's a small fraction of the groundwater held in the aquifer, and equivalent to the annual consumption of two Coachella Valley golf courses.

Conservation groups, though, say that kind of water consumption is irresponsible, especially during a historic drought. Park officials also worry that drawing on the aquifer could harm threatened species in and around the park.

"The potential that we could substantially deplete all of the springs in these three basins terrifies me," David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, told The Desert Sun last year. "It has the potential for wiping out bighorn sheep populations from all those areas."

Local activists have also accused Kaiser of illegally conspiring with state mining officials to keep control of Eagle Mountain, arguing that the company should have been required to give the site back to the federal government after it stopped mining iron.

For renewable energy advocates, the question of how to ramp up intermittent renewables like solar and wind — which only generate electricity when the sun shines or the wind blows — has long been a major challenge. With Californian lawmakers likely to adopt a 50 percent renewable energy mandate in the next few months, that challenge has become more pressing.

Right now, utility companies generally turn to natural gas-fired power plants, which contribute to climate change, to help integrate more solar and wind onto the grid. Some renewable energy experts say "pumped storage" projects like Eagle Mountain can help reduce the need for natural gas.

That argument appealed to Benoit, a longtime renewable energy supporter. The Riverside County supervisor said that while more environmental review is needed, he's hopeful the project's benefits will outweigh its potential impacts on water and wildlife.

"Those are issues that will be evaluated thoroughly in the environmental process," he said in an interview. "My guess is, it will come in on the side of, 'Yes, it does make sense.'"

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a license for the Eagle Mountain hydroelectric plant last year, but the proposal still needs to clear several legal hurdles, despite Eagle Crest now owning the land.

For one, the National Park Service petitioned the energy commission to reconsider its decision last August, and the agency has yet to respond to that request. Eagle Crest also still needs approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management to build transmission lines across public lands.

The biggest obstacle, though, could be pushback from local activists and national parks advocates, who could try to keep the hydroelectric plant tied up in court. Some have pointed out that parts of Eagle Mountain are designated for conservation under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ongoing state-federal effort that would lay the ground rules for the next 25 years of clean energy development and conservation across the California desert.

Eagle Crest submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management asking it to reverse those designations.