Andrew G. Fried
Complacency is deadly.
This truism can be aptly applied to the battle to prevent Cemex USA from developing a massive sand and gravel mine in Soledad Canyon. After more than two decades, in August 2015 it appeared the battle may be drawing to a close, as the federal Bureau of Land Management canceled the contracts that would allow Cemex to develop the 56.1-million-ton mine at Santa Clarita’s eastern doorstep.
Many observers celebrated the BLM decision as the “end” of the Soledad Canyon mining dispute, even as Cemex initiated an administrative review process that could precede a lengthy legal battle to set aside the BLM decision.
At the time, we at Safe Action for the Environment Inc. (SAFE) cautioned that the devil could still be buried in the details of that review and appeal process. Here we are, nearly a year and a half later, and we’re still awaiting a decision from the Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals, which could be just the first step in a protracted legal battle.
So, what’s to be done on the home front? Thankfully, Santa Clarita has a legislative representative who recognizes the dangers of complacency:
State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley, has introduced legislation that would require old, pending state water appropriation permits to be subject to public review and appeal.
Wilk’s Senate Bill 146 reads, in part, “If the board has not rendered a final determination on an application for a permit to appropriate water within 25 years from the date the application was filed, the board shall issue a new notice and provide an opportunity for protests … before rendering a final determination.”
According to the legislative counsel’s digest of SB 146, if it’s approved the State Water Resources Control Board would be required to provide opportunity for public protest on water allocation permits like those needed for the Cemex mine. (The bill, it should be noted, does not identify Cemex or the Soledad Canyon mining project by name.)
In short, the bill guarantees the public a chance to be heard before final approval is granted on the state water appropriations that the mine would need to operate. While federal law pre-empts state law, state agencies have the ability to require a project to mitigate impacts on the environment and residents’ quality of life.
The Cemex mining plan requires permits from the California State Water Resources Control Board to draw 105 million gallons of water each year from the Santa Clara River. That’s approximately 322 acre-feet of water — enough to meet the needs of approximately 322 suburban households annually.
Says Wilk: “The proposed Cemex mega-mine would be one of the largest aggregate mines in the nation. The mine would devastate our air and water quality and choke the 14 freeway.
“Despite the magnitude of the project the public has been without an opportunity for input in over 25 years,” Wilk says. “SB 146 will guarantee the public has an opportunity to weigh in with regulators on this ill-conceived proposal.”
Wilk is right. The project’s impacts on air quality, traffic, the environment, residents’ quality of life and the availability of water were last evaluated more than two decades ago. Much has changed since then, not only in the communities surrounding the project site but also in terms of the science that’s used to evaluate such projects.
Assemblymen Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, and Dante Acosta, R-Santa Clarita, have joined Wilk as principal co-authors of the bill, which is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. Their support is appreciated and could prove valuable as the bills winds its way through the legislative approval process.
SB 146 would give local residents an important opportunity they have not had in more than 20 years: Not just the opportunity to protest the mine, but the right to be heard in a public permitting appeals process.
On behalf of SAFE, we thank Sen. Wilk for his attention to this very important community issue — and in particular for his recognition that, even though the heat has been turned down lately on the fight to stop the Cemex mega-mine, our communities cannot afford to be complacent.
If Cemex wins its appeals at the federal level, the state water permitting process could become a very important battleground. We’ll be ready.
Andrew Fried is president of Safe Action for the Environment Inc. To find more information regarding SAFE, visit www.Safe4Environment.org.