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County Desert Landfill Dealt Setback

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge has stalled plans for a landfill designed to bury 20,000 tons of Los Angeles County garbage daily in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park.

By stopping a crucial land swap, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin’s ruling has dealt a serious blow to prospects for the Eagle Mountain dump, which has been bitterly contested for nearly two decades.

At issue is a plan to bury trash in a defunct iron-ore mine pit about 60 miles east of Palm Springs and, at points, less than two miles from Joshua Tree’s spectacular desert landscape.

The garbage would be shipped by train and truck from Los Angeles County, whose sanitation district intended to run the operation after buying it from Kaiser Ventures for $41 million. The site is so vast that officials estimate they could dump trash there for 117 years.

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The plan was seen as a possible solution to Los Angeles’ chronic need for more landfill space.

Critics of the plan hailed the judge’s ruling.

“We’re cautiously ecstatic,” said Howard Gross, the California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Assn., one of the groups that filed suit over the plan. “To know it’s been dealt a significant setback brings us great joy.”

A spokesman for the project’s developers, Terry Cook, said he was “totally surprised and disappointed” by the judge’s decision, which was issued Tuesday. Cook, an executive with Kaiser Ventures, said the company has 60 days to decide whether it will appeal.

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The deal hinged on Kaiser clearing up the legal challenges, sanitation district officials said. Plans for a second desert landfill to be run by the district are unaffected. That dump, the Mesquite landfill in Imperial County, is scheduled to open in 2010.

The decision also could affect the city of Los Angeles, which plans to seek bids next month for alternatives to dumping much of its trash at Sunshine Canyon landfill above Granada Hills when its current contract ends July 1.

Sending the trash by rail to Eagle Mountain is one alternative city officials have discussed.

In his 26-page decision, the judge found that the federal Bureau of Land Management had erred in agreeing to exchange property with Kaiser so that Eagle Mountain could proceed.

Kaiser had mining rights at Eagle Mountain, but the federal government owned the land. In order to create a landfill, Kaiser needed title to the land and had proposed swapping 2,486 acres it owned in various spots in the desert for the BLM acreage it had been mining.

Timlin said in his ruling that the BLM “abused its discretion” by failing to fully consider alternatives to the land swap.

The agency also failed to thoroughly analyze several aspects of the planned landfill, Timlin ruled, including its effect on visitors to the nearby national park.

“The BLM vaguely states that the project ‘can’ have an adverse impact on an individual’s wilderness experience, but that the wilderness experience is subjective,” the judge wrote.

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Although the agency thoroughly analyzed the landfill’s effect on desert tortoises, it failed to do so with bighorn sheep, Timlin ruled.

The judge also concluded that the BLM should have taken a harder look at the increased numbers of predators, such as coyotes and ravens, that would be drawn by a massive landfill.

Cook, of Kaiser Ventures, said that plans for Eagle Mountain -- an extensively studied project that has passed numerous levels of environmental review -- would not necessarily be shelved.

“We’ve faced challenges before,” he said.


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