On Monday, a Federal Court of Appeals overturned a land swap in involving more than 1,700 acres of federal land that would have been used as the site of a controversial regional garbage dump in the Southern California desert. The three-judge panel ruled that the exchange must be set aside because the publicly owned lands were "flagrantly undervalued." The lands acquired by Gold Fields Mining Corp. in the 1997 deal with the Bureau of Land Management will now be returned to public ownership.
The proposed Mesquite Regional Landfill project in Imperial County was one of three desert mega-landfills planned to dispose of trash shipped by rail from Southern California cities. At the site near Glamis, the garbage would be piled on the ground to form a mountain almost 500 feet high and eventually covering about 2,300 acres over the 100-year life of the project. At full capacity, the 600,000,000 tons of garbage would be the largest man-made structure in the world. The project was sold to the Los Angeles County Sanitation District in August 2000 for a reported $40 million while the case was pending.
The Bureau of Land Management chose to make the swap in order to allow the project (BLM policy does not allow new landfills to be built on federal land), which was envisioned to generate a half billion dollars in revenue during its first 20 years of operation. The 1,745 acres of public land required for the landfill changed hands for just $350 per acre, based on an appraisal by the project's promoters that never considered the potential worth of the property for a landfill. Three environmental groups (Desert Citizens Against Pollution, Sierra Club and Desert Protective Council) promptly sued to overturn the deal, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco.
Environmentalists have long criticized the Mesquite project on a number of grounds: the inevitable leaks would contaminate scarce groundwater, the size and round-the-clock industrial activity would destroy the scenery and solitude of the surrounding recreational lands, and the project would push the threatened desert tortoise further toward extinction.
"The project is not only an environmental disaster," said Bill Curtiss of Earthjustice, "it's also a sweetheart deal that shortchanges the public too. BLM approved the project claiming that this particular site was ideally suited for a landfill, but then gave away the property to the landfill developers on the theory that the land was useless. The ruling makes clear they can't have it both ways."
The ruling came in the case Desert Citizens Against Pollution v. Bisson, No. 97-55429
Bill Curtiss, 415-627-6700
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