EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Calif. - Once home to 4,000 people and the largest iron ore mine west of the Mississippi, this desert community now features boarded-up tract homes. Yet every five blocks or so a few houses show signs of life, and down one street, prisoners in orange jumpsuits have just finished building a new playground.
The town prospered from 1947 until 1982, years when Kaiser Steel Corp. provided most of the jobs. Then the steel market collapsed, and Kaiser went bankrupt in 1987. Some 7,000 Kaiser retirees lost both their pensions and medical benefits.
But the reorganized company, Kaiser Ventures, has profited from old assets. It leases its water rights and it rents dorms and company houses to a state detention facility and its guards. These enterprises earn more than $10 million annually.
Since 1989, however, Kaiser has had the far more ambitious goal of opening the world's largest landfill. On Aug. 26, the Riverside Board of County Supervisors gave the project its go-ahead in a 4-1 vote. The dump, 150 miles east of Los Angeles, will take up to 10,000 tons a day of Southern California trash for 50 years. If all goes well, that tonnage could double after seven years.
The land is Kaiser's largest remaining asset. "The only viable use," says Kay Hazen, vice president of a Kaiser partner, the Mining Reclamation Company, "is this project."
But environmental critics are outraged, and federal officials say the county overlooked the significance of a national treasure only a mile and a half away - Joshua Tree National Park. It surrounds the landfill on three sides.
Park officials fear Joshua Tree will become known as the "dump park" and that the imported garbage will attract ravens, kit foxes and seagulls. They say it will also set a precedent for inappropriate development around other parks. The county's future lies in tourism, not trash, they say, and point to a National Parks and Conservation Association study that shows the park generates $20 million annually and more than 700 jobs.
Some locals, including farmers, union officials and a former judge, joined environmental groups and have fought the dump proposal for years, saying they did not want Southern California waste fouling local air and water. Among the most vocal opponents are Donna and Larry Charpied, Santa Barbara transplants who own a 10-acre organic farm minutes from the dump site. They moved there 16 years ago, and it is their 1954 Airstream trailer that has become the opposition's nerve center.
"We have everything to lose," says Donna Charpied, 42. "I have to look forward to dirty water or no water at all."
After reading legal books and typing their own briefs, the Charpieds and other plaintiffs went to court in the early 1990s to challenge the adequacy of an environmental study of the landfill. They won, and Kaiser's waste partner, Browning Ferris Industries, abandoned the project. But Kaiser never gave up.
As a result of that lawsuit, San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell ordered Eagle Mountain town officials in 1994 to do a new dump study. The original, she ruled, didn't fully examine impacts on the park and wildlife, including species such as the threatened desert tortoise. The judge said the new study should also look more closely at the region's air quality and the groundwater in the event of an earthquake.
The revised study and new plan - which McConnell has not yet approved - led to the county supervisors' Aug. 26 vote. The National Parks and Conservation Association called it a "staggering blow" to the future of the national park.
Commissioners seemed to have been convinced by Kaiser retirees and business owners who argued at a hearing that the landfill would generate 1,500 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars for county coffers. Kaiser executives predicted Los Angeles will run out of landfill space around 2005, just in time for this project to reap large profits.
Although a current oversupply of landfill space has kept host fees for Riverside County relatively low, company executives made attractive promises after the July hearing: They pledged $10 million for landfill research at the University of California at Riverside, and Kaiser signed the development agreement, ensuring the county won't be stuck with the bill should an environmental disaster occur.
That was enough to convince four supervisors. In the end, Bob Buster, the board chairman, cast the one dissenting vote. "Why should this county be the guinea pig for the world's largest landfill?" he had asked at the July hearing.
Kaiser officials say they've minimized risks and insist that development near the park is inevitable. "What we've tried to do is present solutions," says Hazen of the Mining Reclamation Company.
The dump still faces some obstacles. The company needs 20 local, state and federal environmental permits before construction can begin. The Charpieds and the National Parks and Conservation Association are looking at the possibility of another court challenge to the project. And park superintendent Ernest Quintana continues to oppose the landfill.
But rousing national opposition to the dump has turned out to be difficult. Local activists say a landfill next to Joshua Tree doesn't stir outrage the way a gold mine next to Yellowstone did. "We will do whatever we can to protect Joshua Tree National Park," says Quintana, "but without public support, it's almost like shouting in the wind."
The writer is a former HCN assistant editor now based in Portland, Oregon.
You can ...
* Contact MRC Vice President Kay Hazen at 619/779-5895; or,
* Contact Citizens for the Chuckwalla Valley, Donna and Larry Charpied, at 619/392-4722; or,
* Contact NPCA Pacific Regional Director Brian Huse at 510/839-9922.