OK, I’ll go ahead and call it the Debacle in the Desert. I mean, how could I not? Here was an opportunity for Palmdale to gain up to 150 manufacturing jobs at a time when such employment is hard to come by. Yet it appears that Kinkisharyo International has had enough and is walking away from its plan to open a permanent light-rail car factory in the city. As reporter Mark Madler notes in his front page story, the reasons for the failure are multiple, though I know most will see it as yet another example of the state’s supposedly out-of-control environmental law. And at first glance, that reading of the situation certainly appears reasonable. Here was a Japanese company willing to spend $50 million in a region hard pressed for new jobs. And it’s not as if it were trying to get entitlements to build a car battery plant adjacent to a residential neighborhood. (The ongoing saga in Vernon over contamination caused by Exide Technologies’ battery recycling operation shows how such a plant can pose real health threats.) Instead, Kinkisharyo was only trying to add another step to the operations it already conducts in the city, where it has a facility that assembles rail cars for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That facility receives chassis and shells built in Japan, puts them together, add seats, air conditioning and all the other sorts of conveniences necessary for a modern-day rail car. The permanent facility would have only added construction of the shell to the procedure while the heavy chassis would still be imported. (The job gains would be a net of 100 to 150, since 100 are already employed at the existing plant.) Correct me if I’m wrong, but how is the forming of the shell, which as I understand it involves the bending of metal forged elsewhere, heavy industry? And as best I can tell, the plant would have been located in an area of Palmdale where there is more desert scrub than neighbors. OK, so you know where my sentiment lies. But that being said, there is blame to go around. It seems quite possible that in its eagerness to win the plant, Palmdale jammed through an environmental review that was, well, let’s call it barely satisfactory – and maybe even that description is generous. I mean how can you base such a review on reports done nearly 20 years ago for an office park? Of course, no one would care if everyone was satisfied with the plant but that was simply not the case. Mayor Jim Ledford noted a growing NIMBY trend in the region, which if you know anything about the Antelope Valley, is almost predictable. Why? Well, many folks, especially longtime residents, moved up there to get away from it all. They like the open space, the clean air, the relative lack of traffic and they want to keep it that way. They don’t want a San Fernando Valley in the desert, or anything that carries a whiff of it. And then there is the union angle, of course. This much we do know – the citizens group that lodged the complaint against the environmental review process, Antelope Valley Residents for Responsible Development, was formed in direct response to the Kinkisharyo plant proposal. And among its members are workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local No. 11 in Pasadena. We also know that the Local was seeking permission to use the expedited process of “card check” to organize the plant. Kinkisharyo refused. The attorney for the residents’ group refused to engage our reporter on whether the union’s organizing effort was a factor in the group’s complaint against the environmental process, which he called deeply flawed. But we all can add one plus one and get two. And, again, that’s not to say Kinkisharyo and the city didn’t leave themselves open to charges of inadequate environmental review. Milken Institute Economist Kevin Klowden speculated that the union overplayed its hand and simply didn’t expect Kinksharyo to walk away. And who knows, maybe it’s all been a big bluff and the project will be saved, but clearly all the parties weren’t on board when Palmdale cut the deal for the plant. And frankly someone should have been thinking about the union angle. It’s no secret that U.S. unions are not happy with Asian manufacturers. All the big Asian – and European – car companies have opened giant U.S. manufacturing plants and prefer the South, where unions are weakest. The Japanese simply do not want to deal with U.S. union rules or pay the higher wages they demand. But it’s one thing to walk into Alabama and open a car plant and it’s another to walk into Los Angeles County and open anything. Maybe that’s a lesson that has been learned for the next time around. Get everyone on board before counting those job gains. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.