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Courtesy of The Signal, signalscv.com
| Wednesday, Sep 22, 2021
Los Angeles County
Abandoned equipment stands at the Cemex site in Canyon Country. Dan Watson/The Signal

A federal court handed international mining conglomerate Cemex a win last week in its decades-long battle to establish a mining operation in Soledad Canyon.

In granting Cemex’s motion for a summary judgment in its lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C., created several new questions on how both parties can proceed — namely the appropriate remedy for the company that purchased contracts to mine about 56 million tons of gravel from the eastern edge of the Santa Clarita Valley more than 20 years ago.

The most recent prior federal action on the fate of Soledad Canyon mining was the BLM determining that the contracts were expired — a ruling that Cemex’s lawsuit argued was “arbitrary and capricious.” The federal district court agreed with Cemex in the Sept. 15 ruling.

The latest ruling now sets up a new round of arguments for the mining conglomerate and the federal land-management agency: Both parties are being asked to make arguments on the most appropriate action, now that the BLM’s ruling on the contracts has been set aside.

“In particular, the parties should address whether it is appropriate to remand only; to vacate the board’s decision only; or to vacate both the board’s decisions and the bureau’s action,” according to the court’s ruling.

For decades, local leaders and activists have fought against the creation of the sand and gravel mine, to be owned and operated by Cemex in Soledad Canyon. However, the ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia informs the mining company that the court will consider revoking the obstacles put in Cemex’s way by the Interior Board of Land Appeals and the BLM.

In August 2015, the BLM notified Cemex that its Soledad Canyon mining contracts, held for more than 20 years but never acted on, had been canceled.

Then, in March 2019, the Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled that one of Cemex’s two 10-year contracts was invalid and the second contract would expire in July 2020. Additionally, on Dec. 6, 2019, BLM ruled that Cemex owed a combined $25.9 million in back payments for failing to make regular payments in lieu of aggregate production as called for by the contracts.

Due to the time necessary to secure the proper permits and infrastructure for the mine, city officials and other government leaders considered the March 2019 decision a win, and the matter, for all intents and purposes, resolved.

But in response to the March 2019 ruling, Cemex filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the BLM decision, saying that the government had “unlawfully deprived Cemex of its valuable rights to mine and produce minerals under two contracts with the United States.”

“The BLM, after repeatedly making clear that the production periods under the contracts had not begun to run, abruptly reversed course in 2015 and asserted that the production periods had commenced in 2000 — despite the fact that Cemex could not have legally mined at that time because it lacked the necessary regulatory approvals,” reads a section of Cemex’s original complaint.

While the company argued that the court should vacate the government’s decisions, and that the full production period must be reinstated, the government argued that the court allow the BLM to remand, or to “correct its errors.”

While not making a decision on the next step, District Court Judge Carl J. Nichols filed a ruling on Sept. 15 that the IBLA “erred in failing to take into consideration course of performance evidence,” and wrote that the court would now like to hear more from the parties on what actions should be taken moving forward. The decision noted the mining company would likely have acted differently had it not been given prior assurance that the clock on its mining contract had not yet started.

Cemex was ordered to file an opening brief on or before Oct. 15 and the government was ordered to file a response brief on or before Nov. 5. Cemex will be then given four days to reply.

In response to the ruling, Santa Clarita Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste, a longtime opponent to the Cemex plan, said the city was “incredibly disappointed with the District Court’s decision.”

“The court’s opinion focuses on whether the Interior Board of Land Appeals considered all of the evidence it should have when it upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to finally put an end to the Cemex project after Cemex failed for decades to start operations,” Weste said in a statement sent to The Signal. “However, we are concerned with portions of the opinion that seem to blatantly ignore the clear federal regulations that govern how mining contracts can be extended.”

“The court implies that the mining contracts at issue cannot expire as long as Cemex fails to satisfy its conditions of approval such as getting the other permits needed to begin operations,” Weste added. “This decision sets an egregious precedent that defies common sense and upends existing federal regulations related to extracting raw materials.”

“It is unconscionable to hear this decision from the District Court that implies the contracts never actually began,” Councilman Jason Gibbs, a member of the City Council’s ad hoc committee on Cemex, said in the statement sent to The Signal. “Our City Council, elected officials, many community organizations, businesses and residents have fought against this mining operation for years due to the devastating impact it would have on our environment and our quality of life in the Santa Clarita Valley. As we wait to hear what the District Court decides on the remedy in the litigation, we will continue to closely track this litigation and continue to be ready to fight to prevent large-scale mining from ever occurring in Soledad Canyon.”

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