[KHTS] – If you think a 56-million-ton “mega mine” in Soledad Canyon is a big deal, just wait.
The landscape of the Santa Clarita Valley would be altered forever if a federal agency’s 50-year plan to mine sand and gravel goes through, as presented in Senate testimony Wednesday.
Cemex owns two back-to-back mining contracts for Soledad Canyon, each 10 years in length, entitling the company to extract up to 78 million tons of earth to yield about 56 million tons of usable aggregate.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The canyon has the potential to produce 356 million tons of sand and gravel, meaning Cemex’ $28 million worth of contracts are a fraction of the land’s half-billion-dollar potential – an amount federal bureaucrats are hesitant to pass up to stop a new mine near Santa Clarita.
Moreover, the hundreds of millions of tons of gravel in Soledad Canyon will be needed for development over the next half-century, a federal official told the Senate last week, and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s proposed legislation, S.771, would take that away.
Steven A. Ellis, the BLM’s acting deputy director, was the only person – but an influential one – to speak in opposition to S.771 at the Senate subcommittee hearing.
Because S.771 cancels the future ability to mine the region, the legislation poses a real problem to the BLM.
For more than a decade, Santa Clarita and Cemex officials have been trying to work out their differences over the company’s mining contracts.
Mining that much gravel would snarl traffic on Highway 14, hurt air quality, take away irreplaceable habitat and open space, and deplete “the quality of life for our citizens,” said Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar.
“Fourteen years ago, when the environmental documents were released, the city of Santa Clarita began administratively and legally challenging the size and scope of the project,” Kellar testified.
From 1999 to 2006, the two sides engaged in “an aggressive legal and public relations battle,” and Santa Clarita spent more than $7 million to fight the mine before a truce was called in 2008.
Legislation has been introduced in each of the past six sessions of Congress, Kellar said, mostly to limit Cemex to “historic” mining levels. Much smaller amounts of sand and gravel have been mined in Soledad Canyon at least since the 1930s and are still being mined today.
S.771 is the latest product of the cooperative effort between the city and Cemex. Rather than just limiting mining, it calls for the cancellation of the mining contracts. In return, BLM land in Victorville would be sold, and the proceeds would be used to compensate Cemex.
For its part, a spokeswoman for the international mining conglomerate said, “Cemex wants to be a good neighbor” and is willing to accept cash in exchange for the contracts.
But in front of U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, the BLM’s Ellis said his agency is unequivocally opposed to the bill.
Money and precedent
The issue for BLM officials extends beyond the 20-year length of the contracts, and also involves a troubling precedent, Ellis said.
“The (BLM) opposes S.771, which would use taxpayer funds and public resources to buy out valid contracts that the contract holder has not fulfilled,” he told the committee.
“The department is concerned about the precedent of buying out valid contracts with taxpayer funds, loss of royalties to the U.S. and state treasuries, and the sale of public lands to compensate a private entity,” he said.
The minimum royalties to the federal government from the two Cemex contracts total $28 million, based on the original 1989 bid amount of 50 cents per ton for 56 million tons.
Since the contracts require periodic reappraisal, that figure is likely to reach more than $100 million, Ellis said.
But federal revenues and precedents aside, there’s a greater concern to the BLM.
“The elimination of this aggregate deposit from use would result in a shortage of aggregate supplies to the northern Los Angeles County region,” Ellis said. “This region has a 50-year demand for 476 million tons of aggregate, with only 77 million tons of permitted aggregate resources … less than 10 years of aggregate supply.”
In other words, just 77 million tons are permitted for extraction now. Hundreds of millions more tons, not yet contracted out, will be needed in the not-too-distant future.
If mining in the region ceases per the terms of S.771, he said, the permitted supply of aggregate resource would drop to less than five years, and the bulky resource would need to be transported from greater distances.
The next step
“It’s our goal to reach a mutually beneficial decision, so we fully support (S.711),” said Sara Engdahl, director of communications for Cemex USA.
U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, termed the legislation the most important issue facing the Santa Clarita Valley, and the bill’s author pointedly referenced its bipartisan support.
“We are all united – the state of California, the city of Santa Clarita, (McKeon) and I are all united” in support of S.771, Boxer said. “It preserves a fragile, natural habitat, and it has the support of Cemex and Republicans and Democrats alike.”
The plan now, McKeon said, is to reach what legislators call a “zero score,” so that the bill costs taxpayers nothing.
To that end, the city of Santa Clarita has agreed to pay if there is a difference between the value of the San Bernardino County lands and the value of the mining contracts.
“To date, Cemex has elected not to fulfill its valid, existing contract obligations in deference to the city of Santa Clarita’s concerns,” Ellis acknowledged.
But that’s likely to change if S.771 doesn’t make it to the floor of the Senate, officials 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,” Kellar told the Senate subcommittee.
“Many years of cooperation and trust will be lost,” he said, “and more importantly, the community will be changed forever with the establishment of large-scale mining.”