[KHTS] – With the 113th Congress failing to stop large-scale mining the Santa Clarita Valley, Cemex appears ready to start mining aggregates in Soledad Canyon.
The Senate closed up shop for the holidays Tuesday night after a flurry of last-minute legislative activity left the city without the Senate vote needed to avert a mine in Soledad Canyon just east of city limits.
The bill’s failure prompted Cemex to issue the following statement Wednesday:
“Cemex is disappointed that the combined efforts of Senator Boxer, Senator Feinstein, and Congressman McKeon, working with the City of Santa Clarita to address long-term concerns in Soledad Canyon in a manner acceptable to multiple stakeholders, were not ultimately successful in Congress.
“Throughout the exhaustive process over the past seven years to develop a legislative solution, Cemex made every effort to support the process. A silver lining is that Cemex and the City through their collaborative efforts, have developed a mutual respect for each other’s concerns and priorities, which Cemex hopes will survive the failed legislative effort as we continue to seek a resolution.
“Cemex continues to maintain contracts with the federal government, and as a publicly-traded company, we must be mindful of our obligations to our shareholders.
“Given these considerations and the uncertain political climate at this time, Cemex will continue to pursue implementation of the Soledad Canyon project with the goal of bringing the project on-line, while also exploring with the City mutually agreeable solutions.”
Stopping a local mine has been a longstanding goal officials, including Congressman Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, campaigned around for years. Now, it appears that might not happen.
“We are hopeful that Cemex will continue to work with the city and our legislators for a legisalative solution in 2015,” said Gail Morgan, city of Santa Clarita spokeswoman, in response to Cemex’ statement. “They’ve been patient and they’ve been great partners and we hope to continue our partnership.”
A brief history of the Cemex bill
Santa Clarita officials and Cemex executives struck a partnership seven years ago, after years of fighting.
The deal essentially entailed the international mining company holding off on profiting from its mineral rights contracts in Soledad Canyon, so both sides could work on a way to compensate Cemex by other means.
The latest version of “the legislative solution,” the Soledad Canyon Settlement Act, calls for Cemex to cancel their mining contracts in exchange for 10,000 acres of federal land being sold, with those proceeds compensating Cemex.
Santa Clarita officials said the bill, which was authored by Boxer and achieved a zero score, led to city officials celebrating the move as the best bet for Santa Clarita to stop a massive sand and gravel mine.
The legislative answer languished for more than a decade as little more than a campaign promise due to a congressional ban on earmarks, according to McKeon.
Then, in November, Santa Clarita officials were filled with renewed optimism.
Boxer’s zero score bill meant the Cemex bill, as its been known colloquially by most in the Santa Clarita Valley, had no cost to the taxpayer. No congressional rules, agreements or understanding, could stop McKeon from introducing the bill in the House, after eight previously failed attempts.
The 113th legislative session
Because of the nature of the bill, officials working on the bill identified the National Defense Authorization Act as the perfect vehicle for Cemex’ passage.
The bill had little chance as a standalone bill, said one city official, who unwittingly portended its fate nearly two weeks ago after a meeting with McKeon.
The meeting between Santa Clarita City Councilman Bob Kellar and McKeon was precipitated by news the Cemex bill, or H.R. 5472, which McKeon introduced about a week after Boxer’s S.B. 2938, would not be included in the NDAA.
The NDAA was the right fit for Cemex because the omnibus legislation included a slew of bipartisan public land use bills, officials said.
The omnibus package was hailed by many — from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, who plays an integral role later in the story, to McKeon, who chairs the committee where the defense appropriations bill originates, the House Armed Services Committee.
However, the Cemex bill was conspicuously absent.
City officials got on the phones, met with legislators and lobbied McKeon for the chairman of the HASC to add the bill as a manager’s amendment.
McKeon said he couldn’t, according to Kellar, and that state Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale — who was elected to replace McKeon in January — was the bill’s best bet.
How the Cemex bill failed
Apparently unbeknownst to all, McKeon reportedly planned things this way.
About one week after city officials sent out a letter expressing their disappointment in McKeon for not using a manager’s amendment to include the Cemex bill in the NDAA, he pulled the bill off the suspension calendar.
“(H.R. 5742) was never an appropriate bill for the NDAA and the omnibus,” said Morris Thomas, Santa Clarita Valley field representative for McKeon, shortly after McKeon got the bill passed with a unanimous voice vote. “We’ve been working on an alternative for some time, but any prior disclosure of this particular option would have jeopardized it.”
Days earlier, McKeon told Kellar the Cemex bill would have been scored months earlier in order to make it into the omnibus NDAA package. McKeon claimed to be unaware of the bipartisan legislative package, which Knight said he “can’t believe” at the time.
However, the move meant the bill bypassed normal House committee procedure, and therefore in order to make it to President Barack Obama’s desk for a signature, it must have the signoff of all 100 senators.
This placed Boxer and her staff with few options, and just a few days to garner support from Heinrich — who served two terms in the House of Representatives in the HASC under McKeon before his election to the Senate and opposed the Cemex bill on ideological grounds.
Heinrich placed a legislative hold on the bill, indicating he didn’t support it, leaving Boxer little option.
“Heinrich has no objection to buying out the gravel mining contract outside of Santa Clarita, Calif.,” said Whitney Porter, Heinrich’s spokeswoman. “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.”
The bill sets a dangerous precedent, she added, noting it could allow Congress to use federal lands as a “piggy bank” any time legislators need funds.
His views echo those of the Bureau of Land Management officials, who also formally opposed the bill, despite numerous attempts by city officials.
Where things stand now for the Cemex bill
Now the only hope for the bill would be for Cemex to wait another several months for Knight to, as he’s already promised, introduce a bill with identical language, and hope Cemex doesn’t begin mining in the meantime.
Wednesday’s statement makes it seem as though that’s very unlikely.
Cemex officials were openly optimistic about a legislative solution leading up to the 113th Congress’ final hours. The bill was expected to compensate the mining company with more than $20 million for its contracts — considered by both sides to be an equitable sum.
The city, for its part, has spent about $12 million in the effort to stop a Santa Clarita Valley, including the purchase of the land where the mine is slated to go.
Santa Clarita officials remain hopeful about a Cemex bill for obvious reasons, and Cemex officials have been publicly supportive of their efforts
But both sides seem aware patience is running out for how long the mining company is willing to wait to cash in on its contracts.
Last year, Kellar seemed to indicate time for a compromise was running out during a Senate committee that included Heinrich.
“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 said in front of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which Heinrich is a part.
“Many years of cooperation and trust will be lost,” Kellar added, “and, more importantly, the community will be changed forever with the establishment of large-scale mining.”
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.”
However, as it appeared hope for a legislative session was fading in the waning hours of the 113th Congress, the words from Cemex officials took on a more guarded tone.
“Cemex will definitely have to take a longer term look forward at our next steps with Soledad Canyon,” said Sara Engdahl, spokeswoman for Cemex, on Monday. “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 added. “Based on the ongoing conversation that Cemex has had (with affected parties, such as the city of Santa Clarita),” Engdahl said, “it seems as though the time for a resolution has come.”
Ultimately, all city officials can do is hang to the hope that Cemex will remain committed to the partnership, Morgan said.
“They’re keeping their options open and they’re reminding us and legisators that they do have contracts to mine,” Morgan said. “They have responsibility to shareholders — and they are reminding us of that, which we are very mindful of — so we do appreciate their restraint and look forward to success in 2015.”