Supreme Court Declines To Review Issue Of Landfill Next To Joshua Tree National Park

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has shown no desire to consider whether the country's largest garbage dump should be allowed next to Joshua Tree National Park, that decision doesn't necessarily end the project.

And while officials for Kasier Ventures LLC say they'll simply work to seek solutions to a land-exchange with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to make the landfill happen, efforts are under way to develop a pumped storage hydroelectric plant next to Joshua Tree.

For now, though, officials with the National Parks Conservation Association are applauding the high court's decision Monday not to hear arguments on the landfill.

"(Kaiser) said they would be going back to the drawing board. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m unsure whether they will," said David Lamfrom, NPCA's California Desert program manager. "But at least as far as I’m concerned, for today we’re extremely happy with the decision not to hear the case.”

Kaiser had wanted the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision back in November 2009 that overtuned a lower court's approval of the needed land swap.

To operate the landfill, which would be capable of handling 20,000 tons of garbage a day, six days a week, Kaiser needed BLM land that surrounds an old iron ore mine that Kaiser operated from 1948 until 1983. Twenty years ago Kaiser approached the BLM with the land swap proposal, offering 2,846 of its acres for 3,481 BLM acres. In 1997, the BLM issued its final environmental impact statement on the swap and issued a record of decision, which triggered the legal battle that continues to this day.

In its mixed ruling in November 2009, which sent the matter back to the lower court, the 9th Circuit's majority:

* Agreed with the district court's decision that the BLM had inaccurately appraised its lands for the swap. While the BLM's appraisal did not consider the value of the acres as a landfill, the appellate court said it should have in determining the actual value for the exchange.

* Agreed with the district court that the BLM did not thoroughly consider alternatives to the landfill as proposed by Kaiser, but rather "adopted Kaiser’s interests as its own to craft a purpose and need statement so narrowly drawn as to foreordain approval of the land exchange."

* Reversed the district court's finding that the BLM failed to adequately address impacts to bighorn sheep posed by the proposed landfill.

* Agreed with the lower court that the BLM failed to adequately consider how nutrients introduced into the desert landscape by the landfill might impact that landscape.

With the Supreme Court refusing to get involved, the matter goes back to the BLM. Kaiser officials, in a press release following the high court's decision, said "it is just a matter of working with the BLM to identify the best path that may be implemented to fix the identified deficiencies."

While this project takes a backseat for the moment, efforts are proceeding to gain permission for a hydroelectric project in the same location on the eastern side of Joshua Tree. Seen as a greater than $1 billion project, the 1,100-acre Eagle Mountain Pumped Storage Project would generate electricity by running water down from an upper storage reservoir to a lower one.

According to the NPCA, the project would require 20,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the Chuckwalla Basin aquifer. During times of lower energy demand, water would be pumped from the lower pit to the upper pit, when it would be released back down through the tunnel to generate electricity to meet demand when needed, explained Seth Shteir, who works with Mr. Lamfrom in the NPCA's California Desert office.

“I think honestly this project raises the question of what is a legitimate renewable energy project?" Mr. Shteir said. "For one, you’ve got the net loss of energy, but you’ve got a use of groundwater, which is of some concern. The groundwater they would be mining (from the Chuckwalla Basin) is connected underground with the Pinto Basin aquifer, which is underneath the park. You drain that too much you could get some unintended consequences, which are not too good.”

Those consequences could include depleting surround aquifers that desert-life relies on, possibly generating pollution in seeps from the Pinto Basin acquifer in the national park, creating subsidence problems, and attracting ravens and other birds of prey that could view the desert tortoise as food, the NPCA says.

Overall, the national park advocacy group is increasingly concerned about development to the south of the park, development that Mr. Shteir said “is the de facto industrialization of that area." One of the proposed projects is a 4,410-acre industrial solar energy facility, according to NPCA.

"There are many different projects down there, but there is yet to be a meaningful examination of how all these projects interact to affect night skies, viewing opportunities within Joshua Tree, how they affect air quality, how they may affect or impair wildlife corridors, and how they might affect groundwater in an arid environment," he said.

Comments

Doesn't "BLM" stand for Bureau of Livestock and Mining? It just looks to me like their living up to their name.