In a decision that is likely the killing blow for one of southern California's longest-running environmental controversies, a federal judge has reversed a 1999 land swap in Riverside County that would have allowed the Kaiser Eagle Mountain company to build a large landfill adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.
In a December 18 ruling, released to the public on Tuesday, the U.S. District Court cancelled a 1999 land exchange in which about 3,800 acres of public land had been given to Kaiser Eagle Mountain. The land, adjoining the company's existing iron mine, would have been used to build a massive landfill that Kaiser would have sold to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.
But the Sanitation Districts backed out of the deal in 2013, and today's ruling cheered veteran landfill opponents who hope to someday transfer the land at issue to Joshua Tree National Park.
The settlement ends 15-year-old lawsuits filed against the Interior Department and Kaiser Eagle Mine by Eagle Mountain residents Donna and Larry Charpied, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Desert Protection Society, and the Center For Community Action and Environmental Justice.
"We just knocked one of the heads off the hydra," Donna Charpied told reporter Sammy Roth of the Palm Springs Desert Sun. "Time to get that land back to the park now. There's no reason not to."
In return for the proposed landfill footprint granted to Kaiser in the original 1999 land exchange, the company gave 2,846 acres of land to the federal government that has significant conservation value. Under the terms of the court settlement reflected in the December 18 order, that land will stay in federal hands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management for its conservation value. The 2,846 acres provide is important habitat or connectivity corridors for species such as the desert pupfish, the Yuma clapper rail, the flat-tailed horned lizard, the California black rail and the desert tortoise.
What's more, some of the land the BLM received from Kaiser Eagle Mountain, in the Dos Palmas area near Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, is being managed as mitigation habitat to make up for riparian habitat lost in the process of lining the Coachella Canal. The so-called Quantification Settlement Agreement that maps out California's use of its share of the Colorado River depends heavily on water conserved by lining the Coachella Canal.
Which means handing the land back to Kaiser would throw a monkey wrench into water transfers to thirsty cities, as well as plans to restore the Salton Sea.
"We are pleased that the parties involved were able to come to a resolution that supports BLM's conservation goals," said John Kalish, BLM Palm Springs Field Manager. "The Court's decision allows us to move forward with the effective management of critical wildlife habitat for important species."
As we've reported in the past, the Kaiser Eagle Mountain Mine is also the site of a proposed pumped energy storage facility that would fill two large reservoirs with Chuckwalla Valley groundwater, pumping that water to an upper reservoir when renewable energy is abundant and then letting that water run downhill through hydroelectric turbines when the sun goes down and the wind stops. It's uncertain that this month's ruling will have any direct impact on that project.