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Mine might have fish problem

Cemex project and habitat of endangered animal’s overlap, which could force miner to work around iss

Posted: December 2, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 2, 2012 2:00 a.m.

A line drawing of the unarmored threespine stickleback is shown.

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A movement to set aside critical habitat for a tiny endangered fish could affect plans for a giant open-pit mine in Canyon Country, because the fish’s home and the mine’s planned location are both in the upper Santa Clara River area, The Signal has learned.

“This poor critter was once abundant in the L.A. Basin,” said Peter Galvin, biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Before my career is over, before I die, I want to protect this fish. It’s on my bucket list.”

The fish in question is the minnow-sized unarmored threespine stickleback, which was deemed endangered on Oct. 13, 1970, long before permits were issued for a 78-million-ton sand and gravel mine in Soledad Canyon.

The unarmored threespine stickleback lives in an 8.5-mile stretch of the Santa Clara River — some of it above ground, much of it underground — from Arrastre Canyon near Acton west to the River’s End RV park on Soledad Canyon Road, according to a 1980 application by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to have the land protected. The fish and the proposed mine share part of that area.

For years, local and state environmentalists have tried to convince the federal government to protect the fish through lawsuits and legislation aimed at defining zones that would be off limits to detrimental industrialization.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service held a hearing on the plan to designate three specific areas as “critical habitat” for the fish on Dec. 19, 1980, at the Valencia Library. Nobody showed up.

Experts, biologists and officials from state and federal agencies interviewed for this story say the stickleback habitat can still be protected.

Permit to mine

In 1991, permits were issued by the Bureau of Land Management for mining in the area. Those permits are now held by Mexican mining company Cemex, though it has not begun mining.

The Signal asked Cemex how it would mine knowing it’s where the stickleback lives.

In an official written statement, relayed by spokeswoman Sara Engdahl, Cemex said: “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded that the potential impact of the Soledad Canyon mining project would not jeopardize the unarmored threespine stickleback species.”

Company officials added: “Cemex is committed to operating our facilities in an environmentally responsible manner and Soledad Canyon would be no exception, if and when mining operations were to begin.”

Although not a silver bullet to kill the mine, the designation sought by biologists like Galvin would compel the Bureau of Land Management to explain why it’s issuing a permit on “critical habitat,” a Department of the Interior spokesman said.

“The BLM would make a determination seeking to do something in a critical habitat and, in doing so, have to consult with Fish & Wildlife as to what, if any, measures mitigate any impact on the area,” said Chris Stollefson of the department’s Endangered Species program.

“The company would have to come up with prudent and reasonable alternatives in order to preserve the habitat,” Stollefson said, speaking in general terms and not addressing the Soledad Canyon situation specifically.

Both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management answer to the secretary of the interior.

“Yes, we can approve a project that is on critical habitat,” said Doran Sanchez, spokesman for BLM California External Affairs.

“We would have to do a ... consultation and the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to agree that the project does not adversely modify the critical habitat unit.”

Unofficially, when asked if Cemex’s permit could be changed, a BLM spokesperson who asked not to be named told The Signal: “Life isn’t set in concrete. Things change all the time.”

Grassroots action

Cemex and the city of Santa Clarita battled over the planned mine for years before the two brokered a truce and threw their support behind a land-swap deal that calls for Cemex to give up its Soledad Canyon permits in exchange for federal land near Victorville.

However, legislation that would OK the deal has failed to pass Congress, and the truce has officially expired.

Opponents to the mine say it will compromise air quality in the Santa Clarita Valley and choke the Highway 14 freeway with sand-and-gravel trucks.

Any grassroots movement to stop the mine by saving the stickleback is possible, according to environmentalists.

“Most likely, such a mine would not be consistent with any critical habitat designated for the stickleback,” said Matt Kirby, spokesman for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C.

Currently the Center for Biological Diversity, with Galvin’s help, is drafting a paper appealing to the secretary of the interior to have critical habitat set aside for the unarmored threespine stickleback.

“I believe it is possible,” Galvin said. “But the stars have to be aligned when we submit it for designation.

“Ultimately, we need community support,” he said. “What we need is a major campaign — someone to bring the community together.”

jholt@signalscv.com

661-287-5527

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