Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico
[KHTS] – A New Mexico senator who claims to be an advocate for environmental causes said Monday he opposes the Cemex bill — which would prevent a 56 million ton sand-and-gravel mine from opening in the Santa Clarita Valley — because it sets a “dangerous precedent.”
The Cemex bill, or Soledad Canyon Settlement Act, calls for the Bureau of Land Management to cancel two 10-year contracts Cemex has for mineral rights in Soledad Canyon, In exchange, BLM officials would sell about 10,000 acres in San Bernardino County to compensate Cemex for the contracts.
“That’s definitely the piece of this that he has concerns with,” said Whitney Porter, spokeswoman for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, referring to the land sale.
“Sen. Heinrich has no objection to buying out the gravel mining contract outside of Santa Clarita, Calif.,” Porter said. “However, the Soledad Canyon Settlement Act uses the sale of 10,000 acres of BLM land as a budget offset to pay for the buyout. This is highly unusual for public land legislation.”
Heinrich, who touts his concern for the environment, said such a bill establishes a precedent for Congress to use its national lands as a piggy bank, Porter said.
On his website, Heinrich considers himself “a lead proponent of preserving New Mexico’s public lands and wildlife.”
“Fighting for public access to public land and conservation has been a centerpiece of Senator Heinrich’s public career,” Porter stated in an email. “America’s forests, wildlife refuges and conservation lands are part of the fabric of our democracy.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced the Cemex bill in November, after learning the legislation earned a zero score from the Congressional Budget Office. A zero score means there would be no cost to the taxpayer.
Before garnering a Senate seat, Heinrich served two terms on the Armed Services Committee in the House with Congressman Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, who authored identical legislation to the Cemex bill.
McKeon just finished his third and final term as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Heinrich applauded Congress’ bipartisan passage of dozens of public land use bills in the National Defense Authorization Act on Friday, some of which were similar in nature to the Cemex bill.
Last week, McKeon said he was unaware of the package of public land use bills, which is why the Cemex bill — long considered an ideal target for an omnibus legislative package — didn’t make it into the NDAA. This claim was later questioned by his recently elected replacement, Congressman-elect Steve Knight.
Knight promised to introduce a similar Cemex bill the first chance he got, however, that might be too late.
“Cemex will definitely have to take a longer term look forward at our next steps with Soledad Canyon,” said Sara Engdahl, spokeswoman for Cemex. “If a resolution is not reached, then Cemex is still under obligation for the contracts we hold.”
There are a series of permits that are required before Cemex could begin on-site operations, she said. Cemex officials are still hopeful for a legislative solution, she said, but the window appears to be rapidly closing.
“Based on the ongoing conversation that Cemex has had (with affected parties, such as the city of Santa Clarita), it seems as though the time for a resolution has come,” she said Monday, referring to the end of the legislative session. “We are still optimistic that Sen. Boxer’s bill, S.B. 2938, can be passed. We’re still hoping to work toward that resolution.”
Heinrich introduced a bill last week, S.B. 3016, that would, going forward, allow the BLM “the authority to accept a relinquished ‘mineral materials’ (sand, gravel, aggregate, etc.) contract and reimburse the company for funds paid for the contract,” Porter said.
Currently, BLM has this authority for oil and gas leases, but not gravel, she added.
However, there are two foreseeable concerns with the situation for advocates of the Cemex bill, which includes the city of Santa Clarita, that has spent about $12 million for the property.
The relinquishment must happen before production of minerals and before any surface disturbance, Porter said.
However, Soledad Canyon was reportedly mined without federal permits in the 1990s, which is what reportedly prompted the sale of contracts, and led to the city purchasing the property.
The other issue is one of time.
Cemex officials have said this current legislative session is the deadline for the international mining company to look for a legislative solution that would avoid a mine opening up in Santa Clarita’s backyard, according to congressional testimony.
When reached for comment last week, Cemex spokeswoman Sara Engdahl said the international mining company “fully supports this legislation and is optimistic of its passage in the Senate,” referring to S.B. 2938. “We will continue to keep the lines of communication open with the city of Santa Clarita as we move closer to a resolution.”
From the city of Santa Clarita:
City officials are encouraging concerned parties, including Santa Clarita Valley residents and neighbors of the affected area to contact Sen. Martin Heinrich: at his website, www.heinrich.senate.gov; @MartinHeinrich on Twitter; on Facebook; or at (202) 224-5521 (office); (202) 228-2841 (fax).
Officials said Monday, December 15, 2014, is the deadline for the vote.