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Setback Dealt to County Trash Plan

Environment: Activists hail court ruling killing land exchange. The deal would have led to the shipment of garbage by rail to a desert landfill.


A federal court victory by environmentalists has dealt a setback to plans by Los Angeles County to dispose of much of the area's trash by sending it by railroad to an enormous trash dump at an abandoned gold mine on the eastern edge of Imperial County.

An appeals court in San Francisco last week nullified a land exchange between Gold Fields Mining Corp. and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that would have allowed creation of an immense trash dump east of the desert hamlet of Glamis.

Environmentalists hailed the decision--which overturned an earlier ruling by a San Diego federal judge that favored the dump plan--as a milestone in their fight against the proposed Mesquite Regional Landfill.

"The project is not only an environmental disaster, it's also a sweetheart deal that shortchanges the public," said Bill Curtiss, spokesman for the Earth-justice Legal Defense Fund, which represented the Sierra Club, Desert Citizens Against Pollution and the Desert Protective Council.

The general manager of the privately run firm that has been developing the project said the court decision was a disappointment, but not unexpected.

Robert Filler, general manager of Arid Operations, a subsidiary of the company that operated an open-pit gold mine on the property, said his company remains convinced that "there is a tremendous benefit to the public" in opening the area to accommodate trash from Los Angeles County.

At issue is whether the public land involved in a swap between the land bureau and Gold Fields was properly assessed. The appeals court ordered the issue back to the trial court in San Diego to hear claims by environmentalists that the 1,750 acres of public land was far more valuable than the 2,600 acres the land management bureau received in response.

In August, Arid Operations reached a tentative agreement to sell the project to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County for $42 million, pending resolution of the environmentalists' lawsuit.

But both sides agree that if the court decides that the public land was grossly undervalued, as the environmentalists assert, the project could be scuttled as economically impossible for either Gold Fields or the county.

"If it's an exorbitant amount of money, it could be a deal-breaker," said Steve Maguin, assistant general manager of the sanitation districts. "But our attorneys feel it's more likely just going to be a delay, as long as the land value issue remains reasonable."

Arid Operations has maintained that the privately owned property being transferred to the land bureau is enormously valuable because it includes areas populated by the threatened desert tortoise.

"Gold Fields brought high-value lands to the exchange," Filler said.

Under its tentative sale to the sanitation districts, Arid Operations is liable for any increased costs from the land swap with the BLM.

Despite strong protests from environmentalists, Los Angeles trash haulers and public officials have dreamed for years of creating huge regional landfills in remote desert areas where trainloads of trash could be dumped. Another area using trash-by-rail is Seattle, which sends garbage to eastern Oregon.

At one time, sites in San Bernardino County, Riverside County and the Imperial Valley were being developed. But only the Mesquite site, about 30 miles east of Brawley on California 78, has cleared the necessary political and regulatory hurdles.

Until last week's court decision, officials at the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, a consortium of 25 independent districts responsible for half the county's trash, had hoped to begin using the Mesquite landfill sometime between 2006 and 2013.

Plans are under way to construct a transfer system from the Puente Hills landfill, the largest of the county's landfills, where 12,000 tons of trash are dumped daily.

By some measures, the Mesquite landfill could be the biggest trash dump the world has ever seen: 450 feet tall, three miles long and as much as 1 1/2 miles wide when full. At 20,000 tons a day, the site would take 100 years to fill, officials have said.

Environmentalists have warned that toxic substances from the trash could seep into ground water and pollute the desert area. The company has argued that a thick liner would prevent such seepage.

Imperial County officials have sided with the company and provided most of the permits necessary for operation. The proposed landfill has been touted as an economic boon to the impoverished county, which has the right to charge a tonnage fee on each trainload of trash.

A week before the court decision, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the sale and operation of the Mesquite landfill. One supervisor said he would seek to change the landfill's county permit to allow it to accept not only trash from Los Angeles County, but sludge as well.

By one estimate, the landfill would generate $18 million in taxes and fees annually and employ 250 people.

"This project is important to our county," said Supervisor Wally Leimburger. "We have very limited economic opportunities available to us."

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