ALMOST 19 years ago, a determined jojoba farmer from Indio let fly the following missive at the Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting:
“Shame on you!” Donna Charpied shouted after the board approved a landfill project called Eagle Mountain, billed as the answer to the San Gabriel Valley’s garbage crisis.
Charpied literally had the last word then. I know. I was there.
That morphed into a two-decades-old legal battle over the impact of the proposed Eagle Mountain Landfill on a national treasure, Joshua Tree National Park, just a few miles away. This spring, the United States Supreme Court, in so many words, also told the proponents “shame on you.”
Our nation’s highest court rejected an appeal brought by Kaiser Ventures, principals of the project. Instead, the justices upheld a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision saying the landfill project’s environmental impact statement was flawed, did not consider alternatives and that the project would bring harm to the national park’s delicate ecosystem, including the endangered desert tortoise. It also threw out a key land exchange.
It appears the Supreme Court’s ruling was the final nail in the coffin. Unless Kaiser Ventures goes back and authorizes another environmental impact statement and makes changes that mitigate the environmental concerns, this project seems dead.
Why am I telling you this?
This hole in the ground 199 miles from Irwindale — a spent iron ore mill formerly used by Kaiser Steel to make raw materials for cars and skyscrapers — was supposed to be the resting spot for Los Angeles County’s household trash. I covered the hearings back then and witnessed the momentum building locally for a waste-by-rail project that began with the defeat of the giant garbage burners. I even flew in a small plane with Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, and others to check out the place. I remember Dreier looking over the vast dug-out pits and saying this could really take all our trash for decades.
The San Gabriel Valley Association of Cities, with the help of the Southern California Association of Governments, approved a plan to train trash to the desert. Many investors jumped on board. The idea was a good one. But, as it turns out, they had the wrong spot.
“The courts have seen the value in protecting Joshua Tree National Park,” said Seth Shteir, California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the environmental groups that took up the local farmers’ cause and won. “You don’t put a sewer next to the Sistine Chapel.”
The county Sanitation Districts, which is implementing the waste-by-rail plan, smartly moved its chess pieces to a landfill in Imperial County, the Mesquite Regional Landfill. This one has been permitted and is ready to accept trash from L.A. County via train, once the Puente Hills Landfill near Hacienda Heights closes on Oct. 31, 2013.
As I moved into editing positions, we had a writer, Laurence Darmiento, who covered the topic. He would say that any giant landfill next to the beautiful desert park would never pass environmental muster. And he was right.
What are the lessons of Eagle Mountain?
First, don’t underestimate the public’s strong desire for preservation of our fragile lands and species. It’s something that’s ingrained in our culture, part of our love of open spaces.
But aside from the coffee mug I have on my desk printed with the words “Eagle Mountain Landfill and Recycling Center,” what did we get from this effort?
Eagle Mountain was a symbol that led to the closure of the Azusa Landfill, Spadra Landfill and the BKK Landfill in West Covina. It was seen as an alternative to close-in landfills near millions of residents.
Though now you can replace the words “Eagle Mountain” with “Mesquite Landfill,” Eagle Mountain represented the Valley cities’ drive to remove the “Valley of the Dumps” sign formerly taped to our backs and begin a new era in trash management. That era began with aggressive recycling and will continue in November 2013 when trains leave filled with Valley trash for the Mesquite Landfill.
And that coffee cup?
“That could very well be a collector’s item,” said Shteir.