Emphasizing the potential harm to wildlife and wilderness, a San Diego Superior Court judge has rejected a plan to locate the nation's largest garbage dump next to Joshua Tree National Park.
The decision marks the second time in three years that Judge Judith McConnell has ruled against the proposed Eagle Mountain Landfill. McConnell said the company hoping to operate the dump, Mine Reclamation Corp., failed to show how the park would be shielded from the impact of a sprawling industrial facility that for decades would dispose of at least 10,000 tons of trash a day.
"There isn't sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that the impacts to Joshua Tree will be less than significant," McConnell wrote in her analysis, released late Wednesday, of the proposal to bury the trash in canyons next to the park.
McConnell singled out the endangered desert tortoise as a likely casualty of the dump and went on to say that the entire desert ecology could be in jeopardy.
"Of special concern to the court is the failure to analyze the impact to the biological resources of the park as a complex and interrelated system," she said.
Joshua Tree Supt. Ernest Quintana hailed the ruling as "an accurate assessment of the environmental hazards" and "a reminder that national parks are special areas that are to be maintained in a natural state forever."
Kay Hazen, a vice president of Mine Reclamation, said the company was disappointed by the ruling and had not yet decided whether to appeal.
The judge's action came in response to a lawsuit brought by the National Parks and Conservation Assn., an environmental group that often litigates on behalf of the parks.
"You couldn't find a worse place to put the country's largest landfill," said Brian Huse, Pacific regional director of the association. "Our national parks are sacred and shouldn't be held hostage by local land use decisions which ignore their value."
Created as a national monument in the 1930s and upgraded to national park status in 1994, the 800,000-acre expanse of desert and mountains is best known for its bizarre jumbles of twisted boulders and its forests of Joshua trees--tufted yucca-like plants that grow to 40 feet.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors, in a 4-1 vote, approved the dump last August, expecting it to generate $21 million for the county during the first decade of operation.
The project called for trash to be delivered by rail from seven Southern California counties, including Los Angeles, to the 2,000-acre site of an old iron mine.
Opponents of the dump, including Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster, argued that the region already has too many landfills in the works and that the county would ultimately pay a heavy price for the environmental damage from the Eagle Mountain facility.
"At $1.70 a ton, which is what the county would have received, we weren't just sacrificing the park, we were selling it off awfully cheap," Buster said Thursday.
Park officials and environmentalists said that besides threatening fragile resources such as the desert tortoise, the dump would create glare and bring noise and blowing trash that would ruin the experience of the park for many visitors.
But their greatest concern was that the dump would import a new source of "food" into a region of scarce resources--and forever alter the balance of nature.
"The desert would no longer be the desert," Quintana said. "The trash would be like a giant ice cream cone--attracting predators that would prey on native species. Nonnative grasses and weeds, which we don't have much of now, would be introduced.
"And in 50 to 100 years, after the dump began fermenting and venting gases, you'd have the makings of a real mess, something that could take millions or even billions of dollars to repair."
Yet Quintana at times has waged a lonely fight within the park service on behalf of Joshua Tree. Although it draws about 1 million visitors each year, the park has never had a passionate, nationwide constituency like the one that rallied to the defense of Yellowstone National Park when a gold mine was proposed next door.
The National Park Service agreed in late 1996 not to contest Mine Reclamation Corp.'s environmental impact statement.
That document was criticized by Judge McConnell, though, when she said that Mine Reclamation had failed to show that the dump would not jeopardize the park's natural assets.
McConnell's earlier ruling in the case put the dump on hold because of inadequacies in a prior environmental report prepared by the company.