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City officials hopeful on Cemex resolution

Posted: June 29, 2013 6:15 p.m.
Updated: June 29, 2013 6:15 p.m.
 

The latest federal bill to halt the open-pit gravel mine in Soledad Canyon could represent the best chance Santa Clarita Valley residents have seen so far resolving the years-long effort to block the mine.

That’s the word from city officials who recently returned from a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. But, they caution, there are still several hills to climb before the bill gets close to passing.

Hearing

Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar said Thursday he thinks the bill could make it to a committee hearing some time this summer, potentially as soon as next month.

While such a hearing is no guarantee of the bill’s viability, Kellar said, even getting that far would be a major step forward in a process that has gone on for more than a decade.

“We’ve never been to a hearing,” Kellar said of past legislation to block the proposed Cemex mine.

The firm has held permits to mine in Soledad Canyon for some 20 years.

“There’s never been a bill introduced that’s done more than find its way into the hopper,” Kellar said.

The last Cemex bill, introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources but went no further than that.

Similar legislation carried by Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, over the years has likewise withered.

“The hearing is not the end of the process,” said Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who also made the trip to Washington. “But the hearing has never happened and this is a major step for us.”

The latest Cemex legislation, introduced by Boxer in April, would authorize the sale of federal land near Victorville and use those proceeds to reimburse Cemex for the value of its mining contracts in Soledad Canyon.

Those contracts allow the firm to extract some 56 million tons of sand and gravel from Soledad Canyon over a 20-year period, which residents say would pollute the Santa Clarita Valley’s air and overload Highway 14 with trucks hauling gravel for processing and sale.

The latest bill has also received a boost from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has signed on to co-sponsor the legislation.

During the recent trip to Washington, city officials also met with California Democratic congressmen Brad Sherman and Adam Schiff and discussed the issue with the Sierra Club.

“I believe that they all justifiably recognize this is a huge issue,” Weste said Saturday, adding she thinks the show of support for the most recent legislation sends “a very strong message.”

Cemex response

While Kellar praised the cooperative effort between the city and the mining firm to find a mutually beneficial solution to the issue, Cemex has balked somewhat at Boxer’s latest bill, saying it does not take into account the full value of the contracts.

“As a result, Cemex views this newly introduced legislation in its current form to be a good step, but not yet a fully viable resolution,” wrote company spokeswoman Sara Engdahl in an email Friday. “Cemex looks forward to continuing open dialogue with the city of Santa Clarita, Senator Boxer and others in seeking a mutually beneficial legislative resolution.”

Due to the wording of the bill, Santa Clarita could be on the hook for compensation owed to Cemex should the Victorville land sale not generate enough cash to pay off the mining contracts.

In previous bills, it was implied the federal government would make up any difference, but in an attempt to lower the potential cost of the bill, the legislation was revised to say Cemex and the city would have to work together to bridge the gap.

This could mean Cemex agreeing to take less than the market value of the contracts or Santa Clarita paying the difference, according to city Intergovernmental Relations Officer Michael Murphy.
Should such a situation arise, Kellar said, the city is willing to work to make up the difference with Cemex, at least up to a point.

“If it’s an outlandish cost we have that option to say yea or nay,” the mayor said.

Future

From here, the bill could appear for a hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
If the bill makes it out of committee, it would have to move through the full Senate before a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Though McKeon has spoken favorably about the bill to city officials and to The Signal through his spokeswoman, he is barred from introducing similar legislation in the House of Representatives due to the Republican ban against earmarks, he has said.

But Kellar said McKeon has promised to lobby for the latest Cemex bill should it make it out of the Senate.

“He has assured us that, should that bill get to the House, he will do all he can to get the votes necessary to get its approval,” Kellar said.

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