There’s still no resolution in sight for the old Eagle Mountain iron mine, eight months after federal regulators approved plans to build a hydroelectric power plant at the site, in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the 1,300-megawatt hydropower plant in June, over the fierce objections of the National Park Service, which has said the project would drain precious groundwater and harm desert ecosystems. The project’s developer, the Eagle Crest Energy Company, has rejected those claims, arguing the “pump storage” project would help state officials bring more solar and wind power onto the electric grid.
But while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission signed off on the project in June, documents filed with the commission this week make clear that the proposal is still far from becoming a reality.
The main obstacle is that Eagle Crest doesn’t actually own the land where the project would be built. The company that owns the land, Kaiser Eagle Mountain, is operating under a liquidation plan that involves selling its remaining assets, but Kaiser officials have said they have little interest in making a deal with Eagle Crest.
Asked about the status of negotiations with Kaiser, Eagle Crest president Steve Lowe was circumspect.
“We have had discussions with them in the past, and we have yet to reach a resolution,” he said.
Kaiser officials have said they’d prefer to sell Eagle Mountain to a mining company, noting that the site still has millions of tons of valuable iron ore. And Eagle Crest’s latest filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission indicate that Kaiser still opposes the hydropower project – as does the National Park Service.
As required by its project license, Eagle Crest submitted a host of documents this week, outlining its plans to minimize the hydroelectric plant’s environmental impacts. Those documents included an aquifer testing plan, a wildlife protection plan and an avian protection plan.
Kaiser and Joshua Tree National Park offered comments to Eagle Crest on those plans, suggesting how they could be improved. But in awkward legalese, they emphasized that even though they were offering suggestions, they still oppose the hydropower project.
“Our comments on these plans should not be interpreted to reflect (National Park Service) non-opposition to the project,” Joshua Tree superintendent David Smith wrote in a typical comment.
Kaiser vice president Terry Cook made similar statements, emphasizing that Kaiser has never allowed Eagle Crest to examine the project site.
“The implementation of the Aquifer Testing Plan is entirely dependent upon (Eagle Crest) being able to access the site,” Cook wrote in one comment. “Only until such time as (Eagle Crest) has access to the Eagle Mountain site, if ever, will (Eagle Crest) be able to begin to implement the Aquifer Testing Plan.”
Kaiser and Joshua Tree officials also noted that they’re still petitioning the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reconsider its decision to license the project. The commission agreed in August to think about those requests, but eight months later, it hasn’t decided whether to grant a rehearing.
“We still haven’t made an actual decision on the merits of the rehearing requests,” commission spokeswoman Celeste Miller said. “There’s not a clock ticking.”
An unrelated legal settlement in December could also make life harder for Eagle Crest. That agreement required Kaiser to return to the federal government certain lands surrounding its property, which the company received 15 years ago in a land swap that was later overturned by a court order.
The undoing of the land exchange means that even if Eagle Crest can convince Kaiser to sell its land, that might not be enough. To build its hydroelectric plant, Eagle Crest might also need to acquire land that is now controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Still, Lowe said the legal settlement hadn’t negatively impacted his company’s proposal.
“We’re pleased that the parties were able to work that out and look forward to working with (the Bureau of Land Management), the park service and Kaiser to come to an agreement whereby we might build the project,” Lowe said.
Representatives for Kaiser and Joshua Tree National Park didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday.
Industrialist Henry Kaiser founded the Eagle Mountain iron mine in the 1950s, on land that was carved out of the southeastern corner of the Joshua Tree National Monument – the predecessor to the national park. But the mine was shut down in the early 1980s as production of steel in the United States waned. Conservationists have argued that Eagle Mountain should now be absorbed by the national park, which surrounds it on three sides.
Lowe, however, believes that the hydropower project would serve a public good: helping California bring more renewable energy onto the grid.
State lawmakers are discussing a 50 percent clean energy mandate that Gov. Jerry Brown called for last month. To make that possible, they will need to find a way to supplement intermittent solar and wind power, which traditionally generate electricity only when the sun shines or the wind blows.
The hydropower project would involve pumping an estimated 28,000 acre-feet of groundwater into two massive mining pits at Eagle Mountain. That water would be pumped from the lower pit to the higher pit when the amount of electricity generated at nearby solar plants and wind farms exceeds demand. During times when electricity is needed, the water would run downhill to generate power.
In other words, the hydropower plant would “store” the solar and wind power when it isn’t needed, then send it back onto the grid when it is needed, Lowe said. Projects like Eagle Mountain, he said, could help the state meet a 50 percent mandate.
“A very efficient and effective way to get there is complementing those renewable resources with storage,” he said. “What you have is this tremendous need, right at sundown, that is very difficult for the existing grid to handle.”
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