Desert Residents Hoping to Derail Trash Train Proposal : Landfills: Hearings are being held on a proposal to bring 20,000 tons a day of Los Angeles’ garbage to an open pit near the Joshua Tree National Monument.


To many urban Southern California residents, the Eagle Mountain waste-by-rail plan makes sense: Reduce the need for local landfills by shipping 25% of the region’s trash on trains and trucks to an abandoned open pit almost 200 miles east of Los Angeles.

But to many desert farmers and affluent Palm Springs-area residents, it is a proposal from hell. With six trains and 200 trucks transporting 20,000 tons of waste a day to a site near the southeastern edge of Joshua Tree National Monument, the landfill would prove an environmental and aesthetic nightmare, they say.

This week, the regional issue is stirring up as much heat as a Santa Ana wind with the beginning of a series of public hearings on a draft environmental impact statement prepared for the federal Bureau of Land Management.


The report, to be weighed by federal, state and Riverside County officials before they decide whether to approve the landfill, says the Eagle Mountain project is likely to have a significant negative effect on air quality at Joshua Tree and in other areas of the Coachella Valley. Other potential problems--such as ground water contamination and impact on native animals--could be mitigated by provisions in the plan, the report said.

While endangered desert tortoises live along the rail lines, Pomona-based Mine Reclamation Corp., which proposed the project, has agreed to turn over hundreds of acres of tortoise-occupied private property to federal control for protection of the species.

On Wednesday night, a standing-room-only crowd of almost 200 people filled a community center hall, with several residents speaking against the plan and a large group of Kaiser Steel retired employees voicing their support for the plan.

The retirees, many of whom were bused in from Fontana, said they hope that revenues generated by the project--which would fill a mine that Kaiser once ran--will help restore health and pension benefits lost when the steel giant went bankrupt several years ago.

“Where are you going to put the trash? It has to go somewhere,” said Abraham Rothstein, a steelworker for 25 years. “To object to filling the hole up, I don’t understand.”

Among the residents opposing the plan by Pomona-based Mine Reclamation Corp. (MRC) was farmer Donna Charpied. “Kaiser Steel made a big sore on the Earth, and now they want to fill it with infectious material,” said Charpied, whose jojoba plant farm is located three miles from the proposed landfill.

On Tuesday, a crowd of about 400 people filled Palm Desert City Hall for a similar session, with two-thirds of the 40 who spoke criticizing the proposal.

The diverse anti-landfill coalition of hardy desert residents and Palm Springs professionals and retirees argues that big cities and big corporations have no right to foist urban problems on the serene desert landscape.

“People who don’t want the filth of the city have moved to the desert,” said Patricia Weissleader, a Desert Hot Springs organic fruit farmer. “Los Angeles County should not be allowed to disturb the purity of the place that they have gone to.”

“The plan as it has been put forward,” she continued, “reminds me of the one in the ‘60s where they were thinking of drilling holes in the mountains to allow the smog to go through to the “useless” desert areas--where people have chosen to live so we can breathe pure air and drink pure water and enjoy the beauty that the desert offers.”

Alfred Lehman, a Palm Springs area real estate agent, expressed indignation as he pointed to a massive painting of a pristine desert landscape covering the wall behind the podium of the City Council chambers.

“Take a look at this picture,” Lehman demanded. “Is this going to be history? Is the valley going to be garbaged out?”

Lehman drew a vociferous chorus of boos from the 200 Kaiser retirees--who were bused to the Palm Desert meeting with the assistance of Mine Reclamation Corp.--when he asserted that they had “damn nerve” supporting the landfill “for one reason only, money.”

Other anti-Eagle Mountain speakers questioned whether the landfill--scheduled to operate for more than 100 years--would poison underground water or unduly light up the night sky. They scored the safety record of Southern Pacific, whose rail lines would be used to transport the trash.

In favor of Eagle Mountain is Ronald Bitonti, representing the Kaiser retirees, who called it “a sound project” both environmentally and fiscally. “What’s wrong with retirees looking after their interests?” he asked.

Former Fontana Mayor Nat Simon said that difficult decisions must be made to find sites to dispose of Southern California’s increasing load of waste. “Rubbish disposal is no more a local problem, it’s a state problem,” he said. “Our salvation will be when we have a place to take our rubbish for 100 years or more.”

Also supporting the landfill is the Indio City Council and at least one Desert Center farmer.

Allen Reames, a part-time attorney who raises asparagus near the proposed landfill site, said the environmental impact report convinced him that the design of the project will protect the local water supply as well as the habitat of endangered desert tortoises.

Reames said that train and truck traffic will “cause some disruptions” but is a necessary evil to help solve the region’s waste crisis.

The proposal goes before the Riverside County Planning Commission in September. Mine Reclamation Corp., which hopes to begin operating the landfill in late 1992, has entered into a memo of understanding with Riverside County officials for a 97-year development agreement in which the county would receive between $4 and $6 per ton for trash shipped to Eagle Mountain.

One of two current Southern California waste-by-rail proposals, the plan calls for compacted trash from the six-county region to be placed in sealed containers at a series of urban transfer stations that would also house recycling centers.

The plan has won its strongest support from San Gabriel Valley elected officials, who say their cities should no longer be burdened with the bulk of Greater Los Angeles’ solid waste disposal facilities. Thus far, however, several communities mentioned as potential sites for transfer centers have balked at serving as hosts.

Landfill Plan

Under a proposal now being debated, Los Angeles-area trash would be shipped by trains and trucks to this desert site.