Proposed Trash Dump Next to Joshua Tree National Park Canceled

Aerial photo of Eagle Mountain mine as seen from the east. | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET
Aerial photo of Eagle Mountain mine as seen from the east. | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET

In a bit of long-awaited good news for Joshua Tree National Park and its wild residents, the agency responsible for disposing of Los Angeles County's trash has abandoned the idea of using the closed Eagle Mountain Mine as a landfill. The decision, reached Wednesday, caps more than 15 years of opposition to the proposal from National Park and wildlife supporters, recycling advocates and Riverside County desert residents.

The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which represent 23 trash collection districts in Los Angeles County, cited "changes in the solid waste market" as the impetus for their backing away from the Eagle Mountain Landfill project. The Districts first agreed to buy landfill capacity from the mine's owners Kaiser Ventures in 2000.

Desert landfills are a major cause of wildlife disruption, especially through their encouragement of increased raven populations -- which in turn are disastrous for populations of the ravens' prey animals such as the federally Threatened desert tortoise. As the Eagle Mountain mine is surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park, visual resources and noise from the industrial landfill operation proposed for canyons above the mine also drove opposition to the plant.

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That opposition achieved national prominence and press attention in March 2011. In that month, the Supreme Court seemingly killed the project by refusing to hear an appeal of a lower court denial of a land swap between Kaiser and the Bureau of Land Management that was necessary for the project to go ahead.

Since that day, when opponents celebrated the apparent demise of the project, "the zombie landfill" has shown one renewed sign of life after another. This week's decision by the agencies that would have provided the garbage in the first place may well be the blow that puts that zombie back underground where it belongs.

"The public has spoken on this issue, as over 300,000 individuals have opposed this harmful project," said David Lamfrom, Senior California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The Eagle Mountain mine site is inappropriate for a giant landfill due to being surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park wilderness and due to the known impact to iconic and protected species like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep."

This part of the desert still faces threats, most notably a pumped storage project proposed for the mine itself, in which water would be pumped between reservoirs to store electrical power. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission favors the project, which threatens to boost local raven populations by watering them almost as much as the landfill would have by feeding them.

Still, this apparent final nail in the Eagle Mountain Landfill's coffin is an unquestionably good thing for the desert, caused in large part by those who made the Sanitation Districts' Wednesday decision not only possible but inevitable. Aside from the national organizations that fought this project tooth and nail, it's unlikely that this decision would have been made without the tenacious activism of Eagle Mountain residents Donna and Larry Charpied, who devoted startling amounts of their own personal and financial resources to keeping the landfill from going in a few miles uphill of their farm.

And there's another group often left out of the equation: the people of Los Angeles, who have dramatically reduced the need for a desert landfill by reducing the amount of stuff they throw away.

The desert owes all of you its gratitude. You certainly have mine.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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