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Cemex bill may die in Senate

Posted: February 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

A Washington state congressman sidelined the bill to ban mining in Soledad Canyon due to House earmark rules, and he’s also committed to sinking a Senate omnibus bill that would spare the Santa Clarita Valley the proposed 56 million-ton open-pit mine.

Meanwhile, another congressman says the Cemex deal wouldn’t necessarily cost the federal government anything.
Doc Hastings, a Republican who represents central Washington State, sent a letter to Congressman  Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, last summer saying McKeon’s Cemex bill violated House rules regarding earmarks.

“After extensive review, it is my official determination that H.R. 4332 violates this earmark definition of House rules,” Hastings wrote to McKeon on Aug. 9.

“Despite the extensive efforts of you and your staff to educate and inform myself and committee staff on the details of this legislation, the House Rules earmark definition leaves no other possible determination than that the legislation contains earmarks.”

Hastings chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. McKeon took over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee after Republicans won a majority in the House in November.

Every year since at least 2004, McKeon has introduced a bill to ban the giant sand-and-gravel mine in Soledad Canyon, which opponents say would add enormous truck traffic to Highway 14 and compromise air quality in the Santa Clarita Valley.

His bills have never passed.

In 2007, McKeon announced an agreement reached by Cemex, the firm that owns the mining rights in Soledad Canyon, and officials with the cities of Santa Clarita and Victorville, along with officials in San Bernardino County.

The agreement involved a land swap that made all parties happy, but the federal government would have to sign off on the agreement.

The cost of the federal government’s sign-off makes the deal an earmark, Hastings said.

However, another congressman says the government likely would not have any out-of-pocket costs.

The Natural Resources Committee chairman further pledged to oppose a Senate omnibus bill — introduced in the last congressional session and likely to be reintroduced during this session — that would block the Soledad Canyon mine for which Cemex bought mining leases in 1990.

Senate solution
McKeon said early last week that he would not reintroduce Cemex legislation as long as the earmarks ban remains in effect.

He said he disagrees with Hastings’ interpretation that his bills constitute earmarks, but he supports the congressional ban on earmarks.

Earmarks are spending provisions that direct federal funds to specific projects to benefit individual congressional members’ districts or provide exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.

“I am fully committed to working with the city of Santa Clarita, local community groups and Cemex to find a satisfactory resolution to mining in Soledad Canyon,” McKeon said last week.

On Jan. 21, the congressman met with Michael Murphy, Santa Clarita’s intergovernmental relations officer, and Councilman Bob Kellar, who served for years on the city’s Cemex subcommittee.

McKeon told them he would not be presenting a Cemex bill in the House of Representatives.

Instead, the trio emerged buoyed with hope they could stop Cemex mining with the passing of the Reid-Boxer natural resources omnibus bill.

That hope appears remote today. Kellar said he was reminded of a call by Hastings two months ago to quash that Senate bill.

“We’re going to have to do everything we can do to get this through the Senate,” Kellar said Friday.
Reid-Boxer Bill S3057 — officially the Soledad Canyon High Desert, California Public Lands Conservation and Management Act — would direct the Secretary of the Interior to cancel the Cemex mining contracts drawn up with the Bureau of Land Management and to still compensate Cemex when all is said and done.

Hastings called the bill a “monster” that deserved to be killed.

“This thousand-plus-page omnibus would create entirely new spending programs, stifle job creation, expand EPA’s power to control the economy and kill jobs, block more American-made energy, and complicate Border Patrol’s ability to secure our border from criminals, drug gangs and potential terrorists.”

The bill failed during the previous congressional session. Hastings has pledged to lead the rally to defeat it again.

No federal cost?
McKeon was out of state and not available for comment Friday.

However, Congressmen Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, who agreed last year to co-sponsor McKeon’s Cemex bill, says the deal worked out between Cemex, Santa Clarita, Victorville and San Bernardino County likely would not cost the federal government anything.

In exchange for negating the mineral leases held by Cemex in Soledad Canyon, the Mexican cement firm would get leases of equal value elsewhere, Sherman said.

“From my standpoint, there’s plenty of land in San Bernardino the could be used to bring the Cemex matter to a conclusion,” Sherman told The Signal last week.

“The government will find un-needed land in the Inland Empire important to this bill,” he said.
Sherman says when the Congressional Budgeting Office allocates spending it has to ask: “Does this bill cost the federal government money, and if so, how much?”

While McKeon’s bill would cost the budgeting office about $35 million, Sherman said, that bill would be paid — not with cash — but with land assigned to Cemex by the government.

Hastings’ letter opposing McKeon’s Cemex bill found flaws that he said would define it as earmark legislation regardless.

The letter says the bill contains “several instances where specific spending authority is provided to specific entities without an administrative or formula-driven process, which are the basic tests of an earmark in the House rule.”

Hastings was not available for comment Friday.

Years of fighting
In 1990, the Mexican mining firm Cemex purchased mining contracts from the Bureau of Land Management to open a 56 million-ton sand and gravel mine in Soledad Canyon.

The surface of the land is owned by the city of Santa Clarita, but the underground minerals are owned by the United States.

Cemex wants to mine more than 300,000 tons of those minerals a year.

Santa Clarita city officials and east side residents have been fighting that plan for years. Since at least 2004, McKeon has attempted to do the same in Congress.

In his August letter, Hastings acknowledged the local congressman’s hard work in having tried repeatedly to get his mining ban passed in the House.

“The time, attention and detailed arguments that you made on behalf of the bill were more extensive than any other that has been reviewed under the Natural Resources Committee’s jurisdiction.

“I know you are very committed to advancing this legislation, yet for the few months that remain in this (111th) Congress, I must oppose such advancement, including a legislative hearing on the bill, due to the earmark moratorium.”

Council frustration
Kellar said he doesn’t care how Congress chooses to describe earmarks; too much effort has gone into making the Cemex deal happen to abandon it now.

“Their definition is absolutely absurd,” he said.

“Each congressman throughout the country has issues in his own district — that’s why we elect them. These are needs that have to be addressed,” he said.

“Cemex is a huge issue for the Santa Clarita Valley and we’ve expended unbelievable amounts of time and energy to make it happen,” he added. “I’m not faulting our congressman. I’m faulting what is going in Congress.”

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