The Fight for Eagle Mountain

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)

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.


To that point, the Charpieds are quick to add that even the AFL/CIO opposes any plan to dump waste on the Eagle Mountain land, in part because the national park itself creates jobs and draws in money. According to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), “National Treasures as Economic Engines,” Joshua Tree’s 1,280,917 visitors in 1992 spent $77 a night, generating a total of $21.9 million and supporting 1,115 jobs. And even if the Charpieds, the NPCA and all other landfill opponents protest out of extreme bias and selfishness, no biologist will deny that a landfill surrounded on three sides by protected desert wilderness will eventually ruin that wilderness.

“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.”

“Here’s what I feel good about,” Donna says. “That all of our efforts have prevented 84,000 tons of air pollution being pumped into this area, and we have prevented 40 million gallons of garbage juice from polluting the ground water — and that’s a statistic I got from the EIR, 40 million gallons of toxic brew. And so far, we’ve stopped it.”

But one early morning last winter, Larry Charpied was up processing jojoba seeds when he heard the “ding-ding” of a truck backing up not too far away. When he went outside to look, he spotted men on his property putting up survey markers. He politely chased them off, asking them to “have your boss call me.” The next day, they came back. This time he wasn’t so nice. “I told them get out now or I’m calling the sheriff.” The next day, they were back. Larry called the sheriff. And this was how Larry and Donna Charpied learned that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was considering the area for a water-storage project several times the size of a similar facility 10 miles west at Hayfield.

The MWD refers to the Upper Chuckwalla Valley Storage Project as “a feasibility study to determine the potential to store surplus Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA) water during normal or wet years and return it to the CRA for delivery to Southern California during dry years,” and says the plan is part of an effort to hold California to its basic entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet per year from the Colorado River. But the Charpieds claim that it’s much more, that the MWD actually plans to pump the Pinto Basin’s underground water supply into the Colorado River Aqueduct and replace it with Colorado River water, which will be poured over 7,000 acres of desert to sink back into the aquifer. It is, says Donna, the MWD’s answer to perchlorate contamination in Los Angeles drinking water. “They told us to our face their mandate is to get new water sources,” she says. “But it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to pollute our water so there can be uncontrolled growth.”

Perchlorate, a byproduct of rocket fuel, affects thyroid function in humans and interferes with reproduction. “And if it does that to humans,” Larry asks, “what kind of effect will it have on reptiles? On bighorn sheep? They’re going to take our clean water so Los Angeles can drink it and put back the dirty stuff, stir up the arsenic in the soil and poison the wildlife. And if the water level drops in the Pinto Basin below the roots of our native desert plants, it’s gone, and they’re gone. And it’s irreversible.

“I’m telling you,” he warns. “It’s the Owens River Valley all over again.”

Donna makes the point in her own way. “Joni Mitchell was out here having dinner at the Twentynine Palms Inn last week,” she tells me. “And ever since then I’ve been singing, ‘They paved paradise to put up a garbage dump!’ Because that’s never been more true anywhere than it is here right now: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I just hope we never find that out.”

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