By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Landfills leak,” Larry Charpied insists. “They say, ‘Oh, this one won’t leak,’ but there’s never been a landfill in history that doesn’t leak. And once they start leaking, you can’t fix them until you dig them up. And nobody’s going to do that.”
Dr. G. Fred Lee, an environmental engineer and landfill expert who consulted on the first Eagle Mountain environmental-impact report, told me that not only do landfill-lining systems inevitably fail, but the Eagle Mountain land presents particularly dangerous conditions for failure. “The subsurface geology is fractured rock,” he said. “It’s not like the San Gabriel basin, where you have a nice even flow of ground water and you know where the water’s going. Here you can have a well that’s a few inches from a fracture. When the polluted water gets into it, you won’t even know.”
Garbage also breeds ravens, whose prevalence in the Joshua Tree region may one day wipe out future generations of desert tortoise. Attracted to human-generated waste, the birds, whose name is synonymous with hunger, have increased by 450 percent to 1,000 percent in a recent 24-year period, according to a 2002 report by William Boarman and Sharon Coe of the U.S. Geological Survey. Among other bad habits, they pick off baby reptiles for snacks: A few years ago, when Joshua Tree officials laid out plastic tortoises to monitor the ravens’ behavior, the toy-turtle casualty rate was 100 percent. The landfill would tip the balance so far in the ravens’ favor that the chance any desert tortoise would grow to maturity under their shadow is zero.
MRC spokesperson Kay Hazen argues that “years and years of environmental analysis” have made the company well aware of the landfill’s potential impact on the surrounding environment. “But that’s what mitigation is for. There are hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for mitigation measures,” all of them detailed in an extensive agreement with the National Park Service. Those measures include raven and predator monitoring for the protection of the desert tortoise, zero tolerance for windblown debris and low-sodium lights. In addition, Hazen notes, “the park service receives 10 cents a ton to use for whatever purposes it deems necessary.” All of these measures, says Hazen, “were directed at trying to resolve some of the concerns that at the time the [park service] was expressing to unknown things — all the what ifs. We’ve been responsive to those concerns.”
All of what Hazen says is true, but the most advanced mitigation plan in the world may not be enough in a landscape where wind and sand are as essential to the ecological balance as water and sunlight. Fifth on the list of Lee’s most common toxins found leaking from landfills is the same chemical eroding the desert’s plant life from above: nitrogen.
In the middle of April, I drive out to visit the Charpieds at their desert oasis, eight miles off the 10 freeway down a bumpy dirt road. “Long drive, isn’t it?” Donna says as I get out of the car. “That’s why they picked this place for the world’s largest garbage dump — they didn’t think there’d be the political clout to stop it.”
As you look east from a bench in the Charpieds’ garden, the Coxcomb Mountains shine an iridescent taupe in the lowering afternoon light, and the shadows of the Pinto Basin at the park’s eastern edge cast the kind of resonant desert light that, if it doesn’t make you believe in God, at least makes you wish you could. “In the summer when the ‘fast rains’ come,” says Donna, “we can sit here and watch the floods running down the mountain washes. They look like shimmering ribbons of silver.” In the other direction, the remains of the open-pit mine tower over the desert, three miles away.
The Charpieds have been environmental activists since the ’70s, when they lived in Santa Barbara; Donna was one of 487 women jailed in 1978 for blockading the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Eventually the couple grew weary of their own tactics. “We started to realize that you can’t just go, ‘Don’t drill here!’ ‘Don’t build there!’ and never offer any alternatives,” says Donna. “We wanted to do something more positive.”
Larry had read somewhere that the cold-pressed oil of the jojoba seed, which was then being marketed as a health and beauty miracle product, had the same molecular structure as the sperm-whale oil used in the 19th century for everything from lamps to heating fuel. So they set down their 1950s Airstream trailer on a piece of land they bought for a thousand dollars an acre and went to work farming jojoba, combining modern-day farming with Native American Indian techniques. For the first 18 months, they had no water or electricity, and they had to make sure they got home before dark or they couldn’t
find the trailer. “I thought he was taking me straight to hell,” Donna laughs. “But now I believe God put us here to defend the park.”
“God put us here for the jojoba,” Larry corrects her gently. “But we’re here now. We moved here to get away from it all and found ourselves in the thick of it. And we’re never going to give up.”