The Fight for Eagle Mountain 

Thursday, Jul 8 2004
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Joshua Tree National Monument was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not before his friend, the legendary industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, put in a bid for mineral exploration in certain stretches of the same desert. In 1950, Congress reduced the area of the monument from the park’s southeast corner by 265,340 acres to make way for mineral exploration (234,000 of those acres would be given back to the monument in 1994, when Congress upgraded the land to national-park status). In 1952, it granted 465 acres of that land near Eagle Mountain to Kaiser Steel Corp. for a town site and operations base for the open-pit mine from which Kaiser had been extracting iron ore since 1947.

While the domestic steel industry boomed, Kaiser Ventures Inc. was a great corporate benefactor: Eagle Mountain was once a bustling, happy little town, and its residents were bereft when Kaiser closed the mine in 1983, evicting families from their homes and emptying the local school. In 1987, with cheap imported steel flooding the U.S. market, Kaiser filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and looked for new ways to make money. It formed a subsidiary specifically for the task: Mine Reclamation Corp.

In 1989, Kaiser/MRC proposed a swap with the Bureau of Land Management: 3,481 acres of land at the old mine site — a mere half-mile from Joshua Tree’s border — for 2,486 acres split up into 10 non-contiguous parcels plus $20,100 in cash. Kaiser/MRC also requested an easement through the new federal land to operate a rail line. The railway’s express purpose was the daily transport of 20,000 tons of garbage from the Los Angeles Sanitation District to the Eagle Mountain pit.

Eagle Mountain:
L.A.'s future trash can?

(Photo by Debra DiPaolo)

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Except the trash won’t really go into the pit, the dump’s opponents argue. “There are five phases to the dump plan, and the fifth phase is the east pit,” says Donna Charpied, one of the leaders in the fight to stop the landfill. “All of the permits are given for the first four phases, because the Department of Mines and Geology has said that there are still iron-ore reserves at the bottom of that pit, and our nation may need those resources.” Instead, for its first 76 years of operation, L.A.’s waste will fill 2,000 acres of undisturbed canyons, rising into mounds several hundreds of feet high. In Riverside County’s first environmental-impact report, submitted in May 1992, the county admitted that the Eagle Mountain Landfill would exacerbate air and water pollution in the Coachella and Chuckwalla valleys. Donna Charpied and her husband, Larry, launched a legal challenge back then, with only the help of a how-to book, and got county officials to reject the project in a 4-1 vote. Of course, that was only the beginning of the fight. In 1999, armed with a new environmental-impact report, Kaiser prevailed in court, further appeals were rejected, and the landfill seemed inevitable. It would have been were it not for the Charpieds and a host of other environmental and citizens’ groups, including the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and some national-park officials. Currently, the landfill has been held up by a lawsuit brought by the Desert Protection Society, the Riverside-based Center for Environmental Justice and the Charpieds.

The Charpieds, jojoba farmers and 23-year residents of the Chuckwalla Valley, are so prominent in the landfill battle they’re even mentioned in Kaiser’s letter to its stockholders. Last winter, they shifted their strategy with a campaign to force the return of 29,775 acres, including the mining site, to the park under what they say were the terms of the mining company’s original agreement. They call it the “Give It Back!” campaign. “It says in the original 1952 agreement with the United States Congress that if the land is not used for mining for seven consecutive years, it will revert to the public for its ‘highest and best use,’” Donna explains.
“We’re only trying to get them to enforce the law.”

By the way, Donna Charpied refuses to call the Eagle Mountain project a landfill. “It’s a garbage dump,” she says with a smile. “Larry will call it that because he’s nice, but I’m not and I don’t.”

If the Charpieds have invested a significant chunk of their income over the last decade in the landfill fight, Kaiser/MRC has spent exponentially more: In fact, the company’s financial forecasts rely almost exclusively on the $41 million sale of the Eagle Mountain pit to the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, which approved the sale in August of 2000. Kaiser’s letter to its stockholders says it anticipates completion of the sale this year. Riverside County would benefit as well: In cash-strapped California, Kaiser/MRC promises $264 million in fees and taxes generated over the next 20 years. The landfill would also directly employ hundreds of workers, and its affiliated operations would provide nearly a thousand jobs.

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