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UPDATE: Feds raise financial concerns on Cemex bill

Posted: November 19, 2013 10:26 p.m.
Updated: November 20, 2013 5:59 p.m.

Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar offers televised testimony in favor of the bill to block the Cemex mine during a Senate sub-committee meeting in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Signal photo by Luke Money

Santa Clarita representatives and federal legislators testified Wednesday before a U.S. Senate sub-committee in the nation’s capital in support for the most recent bill that would prevent development of the massive Cemex sand and gravel mine in Soledad Canyon.

However, federal officials said they do not support the legislation, which they say could cost the federal government millions of dollars in royalties.

The latest bill in a string of stop-the-mine legislation is S. 771, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in April. It is co-sponsored by her fellow California Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The bill has made it farther in the legislative process than any previous bill introduced during the past 10 years.

The bill would require the sale of federally owned land near Victorville and use that money raised to pay Cemex for the contracts it won from the Bureau of Land Management.

Those contracts allow the mining firm to extract and haul 56 million tons of sand and gravel from the Soledad Canyon area.

Santa Clarita and Cemex have been tussling over the contracts for the last 14 years but have worked in concert in recent years to develop a mutually agreeable solution to the issue.

“They don’t want this mine,” Boxer said of Santa Clarita during Wednesday’s hearing, “and the mining company is willing to go away if they get a fair deal — and that’s what our bill does.”

The hearing was before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining. No previous Cemex bills have made it as far as a hearing.

Support for resolution
Boxer said she was pleased that a number of stakeholders in the matter have come together to support the legislation, including Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita.

“I don’t know of anybody in the (Santa Clarita) Valley who would support a mine going forward,” said McKeon, who added he fully supports Boxer’s bill, although he declined to introduce his own version in the House.

Both Boxer and McKeon have introduced pieces of legislation over the years aimed at blocking development of the Cemex mine and setting aside the land in Soledad Canyon to prevent any future mining efforts.

“Cemex continues to support this legislation, and today’s hearing was an important first step in reaching a mutually beneficial agreement regarding Soledad Canyon,” Cemex company spokeswoman Sara Engdahl wrote in an email.

Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar, who spoke at Wednesday’s committee meeting, said he thinks the bill is a responsible resolution.

“This bill is the product of over six years of partnership between the city of Santa Clarita and Cemex in a mutual effort to find a responsible resolution to a difficult problem,” Kellar said. “While some may feel that S. 771 may not be the perfect solution, it represents our best ongoing collaborative efforts.”

Kellar said the city’s opposition to the mine is based on concerns over increased traffic congestion, compromised air quality, the loss of habitat and open space, and depletion of quality of life for Santa Clarita Valley residents.

The Bureau of Land Management opposes the bill because it “would use public resources to buy out valid contracts,” according to Steve Ellis, acting deputy director for the bureau.

“The department is also concerned about the precedent of the sale of public lands to compensate a private entity,” he said.

Another concern raised Wednesday was the potential cost of the bill to the federal government.
Ellis estimated that canceling the Cemex contracts and preventing any future mining on the site could cost the federal government millions of dollars in royalties.

The estimated value of the Cemex contracts is $28 million, according to Engdahl.

Should the sale of the land near Victorville be insufficient to cover costs associated with the Cemex contracts, the city is willing to pitch in to make up the difference and reduce or eliminate the federal financial impact of the bill, according to officials.

Another issue, albeit one much further along in the process, would be if the bill makes it to the U.S. House of Representatives.

McKeon reiterated that any Cemex legislation will have to contest with a Republican ban against earmarks in the House of Representatives, which prohibits spending proposals that benefit specific districts.

But a minimal federal financial impact could enable the bill to circumvent that ban, McKeon said.

Future steps
Those involved in the matter said they were hopeful Wednesday’s committee hearing is a major step forward on the Cemex issue.

“I am encouraged that we were able to get a hearing in front of the committee today, and I am looking forward to working with Senator Boxer in an effort to move this bill forward,” McKeon said after Wednesday’s hearing. “I am hopeful that this is a crucial step on the path forward to finding a workable solution to stop this mine once and for all.”
City officials agreed.

“This hearing was a landmark for the city of Santa Clarita,” said City Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who attended the hearing.

The bill will now move through the scoring process, where its financial impact will be determined, according to Weste. The goal of the legislation is to get that score as close to zero as possible.

“Both Cemex and the city will be working to get that score (of the bill) to zero,” Weste said.
Kellar said it is vital to move forward on the matter.

“We are now at a critical juncture,” Kellar 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.

“Many years of cooperation and trust will be lost and, more importantly, the community will be changed forever with the establishment of large scale mining,” Kellar continued.
On Twitter @LukeMMoney




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