The Santa Clarita Valley landscape would be altered dramatically if a federally supported plan to mine the sand and gravel from Soledad Canyon goes through, according to Senate testimony Wednesday.
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Cemex owns two mining contracts for Soledad Canyon, each 10 years in length, which would yield about 56 million tons of usable aggregate — a total of 78 million tons of the material used to make gravel and concrete — over the next 20 years.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The canyon has the potential to produce 356 million tons of sand and gravel, meaning Cemex’ $28 million worth of contracts are a fraction of the land’s half-billion-dollar potential — an amount federal bureaucrats are hesitant to pass up to stop a new mine near Santa Clarita.
And furthermore, the hundreds of millions of tons of gravel are needed as a resource to develop the region for the next 50 years, which would be negated if the contracts were cancelled, according to a Bureau of Land Management official who spoke as the lone opposition to Senate Bill 771 last week in front of a Senate subcommittee.
Because S.B. 771 cancels the future ability to mine the region, the legislation poses a real problem to the BLM.
Cemex history and legislation
For more than a decade, Santa Clarita and Cemex officials have been working on what they’re going to do with the contracts.
Mining that much gravel would create traffic congestion on Highway 14, air quality impacts, the loss of irreplaceable habitat and open space and deplete “the quality of life for our citizens,” said Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar.
“Fourteen years ago, when the environmental documents were released, the city of Santa Clarita began administratively and legally challenging the size and scope of the project,” Kellar said.
“From 1999 to 2006, the two sides engaged in “an aggressive legal and public relations battle,” and Santa Clarita officials have spent more than $7 million in fighting the mine, before a truce was reached in 2008.
Legislation has been introduced in each of the past six sessions of Congress, Kellar said.
Past legislation would have limited Cemex to “historic” mining levels. Much smaller amounts of sand and gravel have been mined in Soledad Canyon at least since the 1930s, and are still being mined today.
The latest product of the cooperative effort, S.B. 771, calls for BLM land in Victorville to be sold, with those proceeds compensating Cemex for the value of the contract. The land would also be made unavailable for future mining.
For its part, a spokeswoman for the international building supply company said, “Cemex wants to be a good neighbor,” and is willing to accept cash in exchange for the contracts.
But, in front of U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining members, Steven Ellis, deputy director for the Bureau of Land Management, said the agency is unequivocally opposed to S.B. 771, authored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California.
Mining money and precedent
The issue for BLM officials extends beyond the 20-year length of the contracts, and also involves a troubling precedent, Ellis said.
“The (BLM) opposes S.B. 771, which would use taxpayer funds and public resources to buy out valid contracts that the contract holder has not fulfilled,” he told the committee last week.
“The department is concerned about the precedent of buying out valid contracts with taxpayer funds, loss of royalties to the U.S. and State Treasuries, and the sale of public lands to compensate a private entity,” Ellis said.
Boxer stated that even the BLM has cited the importance of the area as an ecological resource.
However, federal officials said the need to mine is greater, and the federal government has prevailed each time the BLM’s project approval has been challenged.
The minimum royalties to the federal government from the two Cemex contracts total $28 million, based on the original 1989 bid amount of $0.50 per ton, for 56 million tons.
Since the contracts require periodic reappraisal, that figure is likely to reach more than $100 million, Ellis said.
But federal revenues and precedents aside, there’s a greater concern, he said.
“The elimination of this aggregate deposit from use would result in a shortage of aggregate supplies to the northern Los Angeles County region,” Ellis said. “This region has a 50-year demand for 476 million tons of aggregate, with only 77 million tons of permitted aggregate resources… less than 10 years of aggregate supply.”
If mining in the region ceases, he said, the permitted supply of aggregate resource would drop to less than five years, and the bulky resource would need to be transported from greater distances.
The next step for Santa Clarita, Cemex
“It’s our goal to reach a mutually beneficial decision, so we fully support (S.B. 711),” said Sara Engdahl, director of communications for Cemex USA.
Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, called the bill the most important issue facing the Santa Clarita Valley, and the bill’s author pointedly referenced its bipartisan support.
“We are all united — the state of California, the city of Santa Clarita, (McKeon) and I are all united (in support of S.B. 771),” Boxer said. “It preserves a fragile, natural habitat and it has the support of Cemex and Republicans and Democrats alike.”
The plan now, McKeon said, is to create what legislators call a “Zero score,” so that the bill does not cost taxpayers anything.
And to that end, the city of Santa Clarita has agreed to pay if there is a difference between the value of the San Bernardino lands and the value of the mining contracts.
“To date, Cemex has elected not to fulfill its valid existing contract obligations in deference to the city of Santa Clarita’s concerns,” Ellis said.
However, that’s likely to change, if S.B. 771 dies in committee, officials said.
“If we cannot bring closure to the issue during this session, Cemex has indicated that they will have no choice but to go forward and obtain the final permits leading to mining of the site,” Kellar said to the committee.
“Many years of cooperation and trust will be lost,” he added, “and, more importantly, the community will be changed forever with the establishment of large-scale mining.”
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Source: Santa Clarita News