A U.S. Department of the Interior review board has denied Cemex Inc.‘s appeal of a 2015 Bureau of Land Management decision that canceled the company’s mining contracts in Soledad Canyon.
The 49-page Interior Board of Land Appeals ruling announced Wednesday upheld the BLM’s 2015 decision, effectively ending a 20-year battle between Cemex and the city of Santa Clarita over planned development of a giant, mountain-flattening sand and gravel mining operation in Soledad Canyon, in the eastern corner of Canyon Country.
“That’s great news,” former Rep. Steve Knight said upon learning of Wednesday’s announcement. Knight, R-Palmdale, had made stopping Cemex one of his top legislative priorities while in Congress and championed legislation to stop additional mining in Soledad Canyon.
He had high praise for two Santa Clarita City Council members and the city’s legislative representative, Mike Murphy.
“It was 20-some years of work that went into this,” Knight said. “Council member (Laurene) Weste and Council member (Bob) Kellar were the catalyst for this for many years, and there was no one more adept at what was going on with Cemex than Mike Murphy. It was always a four-pronged attack: We would always work together and wouldn’t get out in front of each other, making sure we were moving in the same direction.
“Without the efforts of those three,” he said, “I firmly expect that you would have had a mine up and running.”
“Santa Clarita fought the good fight and won,” said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who carried the city’s fight in the Senate last year. “I’m so proud of the city for not giving up and seeing this through. Clean air and public health are priceless, and today Santa Clarita proved that they’re worth fighting for.”
“This has been a long-awaited decision,” said Weste, “and we are very proud of our community’s stalwart effort to protect our community’s health, air quality, water, the environment and the quality of our lives against mega-mining.”
“Cemex has never done any mining in Soledad Canyon, and after today’s decision – they never will,” Kellar said.
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In 1990, the BLM awarded Cemex predecessor Transit Mixed Concrete Co. a pair of back-to-back 10-year contracts allowing the company to mine up to 56 million tons of sand and gravel on 490 acres near the junction of Agua Dulce Canyon Road and Soledad Canyon Road.
Smaller-scale mining activities had been going on in the canyon since the 1960s, but the community had never seen anything close to the scale of the newly authorized project.
A formal mining plan had to be prepared and subjected to federal and county environmental review. The process took a decade, during which time little Transit Mixed was acquired by a bigger company, Houston-based Southdown Inc., which in turn was acquired by an even bigger company, the Mexican mining conglomerate Cemex.
The federal government signed off on its environmental review in August 2000, and the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) affirmed the findings in January 2002. The county completed its review in 2004.
The project has been tied up in court and in Congress ever since.
The two mining contracts were to run from 2000 to 2010, and from 2010 to 2020. The mining never started.
Along the way, the city of Santa Clarita purchased the Soledad Canyon land in order to improve its negotiating position, while the federal government steadfastly reserved its mineral rights. The city might own the surface, but the BLM still could allow a mining company to dig it up.
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Santa Clarita has been fighting the planned mining project since the late 1990s when the city and the public first learned of the federal approval, which occurred outside of the public spotlight. Ironically, local citizens were busy protesting much smaller mining proposals on BLM lands at precisely the same time the Transit Mixed contracts were awarded in 1990. The BLM never mentioned the far more invasive project.
Fearing what a “mega-mine” would do to the groundwater supply, wildlife, air quality and freeway traffic, the city methodically enlisted the aid of local nonprofits, school districts and the business community in the fight.
The city created a working committee, and Safe Action For the Environment, a nonprofit action group led by Agua Dulce resident Andrew Fried, kept the issue at the forefront during the long, dark years to come, when it appeared little progress was being made.
The legislative war began in 2003 when then-Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon carried the first bill to block the mine. The bill failed to gain traction, but it showed the BLM and the mining company that Santa Clarita was serious. Cemex and the city eventually agreed to a truce: The parties would set aside their costly legal battle and work cooperatively toward a legislative solution. And as long as the truce was in effect, Cemex wouldn’t start mining.
McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, introduced new legislation that met the needs of the city and Cemex. It called on the BLM to cancel the mining company’s contracts in Soledad Canyon, and Cemex would be allowed to mine in another part of McKeon’s congressional district – Victorville – where mining was wanted.
The city was on board, Cemex was on board, even Victorville was on board, but the BLM balked at every step. The BLM leadership believed the federal government should not give up its mining rights in Soledad Canyon. And it wasn’t willing to forego the royalty payments that would accrue from a huge mine that served the construction industry all along the Pacific Coast.
McKeon got the farthest with his efforts just as his congressional career was ending in 2014 when the House of Representatives passed his legislation – over the BLM’s objections. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., carried the bill in the Senate, only to have a New Mexico senator shoot it down. The senator objected to the sale of BLM land (elsewhere) to compensate Cemex.
Knight succeeded McKeon in the November 2014 election. He continued to hammer on the BLM. And then a funny thing happened.
Remember the truce, whereby Cemex said it wouldn’t start mining as long as the city was proactively working toward a fair legislative solution? The truce contributed to Cemex’s undoing in Soledad Canyon.
In 2015, the BLM, which had always taken Cemex’s side in court, withdrew its support. Why? Well, because circumstances had changed in the decade and a half since the contracts were awarded – but also because, by voluntarily deciding not to start mining while it was cooperating with the city, Cemex failed to fulfill its contractual obligations to the BLM. The company was supposed to be mining. The BLM never said it could take a break. The federal government wasn’t a party to any “truce.”
“During the past fourteen years, the BLM has … done nothing to stand in Cemex’s way to develop the materials under contract,” the BLM told Cemex in a March 2015 letter. “All of the delay in development (mining) has been based on Cemex’s own actions.” Or inaction. Consequently, it said, Cemex “does not have title to any of the mineral materials at the Soledad Canyon site.”
What’s more, “Cemex is obligated to make payments for production, or non-production. No payments beyond the bid deposit have been made.” The BLM said Cemex owed it $17.5 million.
The BLM notified Cemex in August 2015 that it was canceling the company’s contracts.
Cemex appealed the decision. It didn’t think either of its contracts should be voided.
Wednesday’s announcement was the answer. Cemex lost.
Additional legislation from Knight and Feinstein guaranteed that Cemex’s mining project, if it ever started, would be the last in Soledad Canyon.
The two lawmakers added language to the FY 2018 omnibus appropriations bill that permanently prohibited the BLM from issuing any more mining contracts in the canyon. President Trump signed the appropriations bill into law on March 23, 2018, and with it, the ban on future Soledad Canyon mining.
Prior to that point, the BLM appeared to have every intention of issuing mining permits for additional hundreds of acres of land in the vicinity. Now that was off the table.
“We worked very closely with the Interior (Department) last year and gave them all the vital information about the community and everything that was going on,” Knight said. “We had discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure that if this (mine) was moving forward it would be a private contract, not an industrial contract, which would have been much more difficult (to fight). So when I left last year in October-November we firmly believed that this (denial of appeal) was going to happen. So I’m not surprised, I’m just happy about it.”
“Now that Cemex’s appeal has been adjudicated,” said Feinstein, “Santa Clarita will finally have the certainty it needs that no future mining will occur.”
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Earlier this week, Knight’s successor, U.S. Rep. Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce, joined the fray, sending a letter to the IBLA urging it to cancel the contracts.
“The Cemex mine has been an issue for our community for decades,” Hill said Wednesday. “I am so proud that we were able to get IBLA to issue an early decision and finally give our city the answers they deserve.”
The appeals board ruled BLM’s 2015 contract cancellation is “affirmed in part, reversed in part, set aside in part, and case remanded.”
Hill said the appeals board found both the BLM and Cemex at fault for violating parts of their contracts, so the board determined that the two faults would nullify one another. The decision affirms that the first 10-year contract is canceled, leaving Cemex to finish out the remainder of its second contract, which expires July 31, 2020.
Officials consider it highly unlikely the company would invest in such a large operation for such a short time, and for essentially no return on enormous startup expenses.
“Even though their contract will not expire till 2020, it would take them at least three years to get their operation up and running,” Kellar said. “The importance of this decision cannot be understated – this is a monumental victory for our residents and our environment.”
Cemex would also need to secure various state permits – a process that state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, pledged to make as long and difficult as possible.
For Wilk, the fight will have come full circle: He was McKeon’s district director when the legislative battle began nearly two decades ago.
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“This is a historic win for residents of the city of Santa Clarita,” Weste said Wednesday. “It’s been a tough fight – fought by many, including our city, our elected officials and those at all levels of government, together with our community. I am ecstatic that all the hard work has finally paid off.”
“We’re thrilled with the decision,” said Fried. “It’s complicated. We haven’t really finished studying the 46-page document so we need to go over that carefully and understand all the nuances involved. But I have talked with the city and I think that our initial problem opposing mining in Soledad Canyon has probably been taken care of.”
Cemex could still appeal the panel’s ruling.
“The ball is in Cemex’s court now,” Fried said. “They can either ask for another full review by the IBLA, or they can go to federal court, or they can just drop it. Frankly, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
Calls to Cemex seeking comment Wednesday afternoon were not immediately returned.
“I applaud the work of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Congressman Steve Knight and Santa Clarita city leaders and staff for successfully navigating one of the most important battles for the environmental future of the Santa Clarita Valley – no question,” state Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, said Thursday. “Persistent community pressure and legislative action helped pave the way to IBLA’s decision. The impact of the Cemex mine would have been disastrous.”
Feinstein said: “For nearly two decades, Santa Clarita has worked tirelessly to prevent Cemex from mining on federal land next to this historic city. I’ve been a strong supporter of the city’s efforts, and I’m extremely pleased that their battle is coming to a successful conclusion. The IBLA’s ruling to finally end Cemex’s long-term mining rights in Soledad Canyon is an excellent resolution to this case and I fully support it.”
“The environmental effects of Cemex’s mining plan would have been terrible,” she said. “More than 1,000 truck trips each day on already-crowded local roads. The mining of 56 million tons of sand and gravel from Soledad Canyon. The harm to air quality and wildlife in the area would have been tremendous.”
Leon Worden contributed to this story.