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Commentary by Andrew G. Fried
| Friday, Feb 26, 2016
Andrew G. Fried

Andrew G. Fried

As soon as the federal Bureau of Land Management announced it was canceling the Cemex Soledad Canyon mining contracts last August, those of us who have been following the issue for more than a decade noticed one potentially frightening loophole:

The BLM never said it was ruling out a massive gravel mine in Soledad Canyon. It was just canceling Cemex’s contract to develop it.

Yes, perhaps we’re paranoid. For a decade and a half, we at Safe Action for the Environment Inc., along with the city of Santa Clarita, other government leaders and local organizations, have been fighting to protect our region from the devastating impacts of the planned 56.1-million-ton sand and gravel mine.

Unfortunately, the mine has been behaving like one of those Hollywood horror movie villains. Every time you think it’s been killed, it comes back, and it knows the frightened teenagers are hiding in the basement, right behind the chainsaws. The only thing separating the mine from “Jason” is a bad hockey mask.

So, once the BLM decision was announced, even as others were proclaiming the mine was “dead at last,” we were at once excited — could this really be the end? — and skeptical: Should we really be hanging around in the basement right now?

The BLM decision — if it survives administrative appeals and legal challenges by Cemex, which disputes the cancellation — could remove Cemex from the Soledad Canyon mining picture. But it could also leave the door open for the BLM to find someone else to pollute our air and clog our roads and highways with gravel trucks.

Thankfully, two legislators representing the Santa Clarita Valley recognize the mine is not dead just yet — and they have taken important steps to help stop it, should it rise again.

In separate pieces of legislation, U.S. Rep. Steve Knight and Assemblyman Scott Wilk have sought to address two different issues regarding the mine.

Knight, R-Palmdale, has introduced a bill that seeks to close the loophole that would allow the BLM to dismiss Cemex, then shop around for another contractor to mine Soledad Canyon. If he’s successful, Knight will play a significant role in assuring the massive mine and its 1,164 daily gravel truck trips will never wreak devastating impacts on regional traffic, air quality and public health.

The Soledad Canyon Consistency Act would withdraw the mineral rights for land in the eastern portion of the SCV, preventing future mining activity. Knight has rounded up bipartisan support for the bill, which awaits assignment to a committee. It is cosponsored by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park; Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank; and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.

Knight said: “Preventing Cemex from breaking ground on this mine has been my top priority since before I took office. … We have strong momentum on this issue, and I am confident that this bill would grant consistency, safety and peace of mind to the people of the Santa Clarita Valley.”

Knight, who also has urged the BLM to expedite the Cemex appeal process, has worked closely with local and regional officials and reached across the aisle to cultivate bipartisan support, which should prove helpful. Remember, the mine site is adjacent to the 346,000-acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, designated by President Obama in 2014. A massive aggregate mine is hardly the ideal gateway to a Forest Service-managed national monument.

The bill, as one might expect, has drawn local support. Among those publicly thanking Knight were Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar and Councilwoman Laurene Weste.

Meanwhile, Wilk has recognized that even though the mine is primarily a federal issue, there’s a role for the state government, too. Wilk has introduced Assembly Bill 1986, which would reopen the state’s permitting process regarding water needed for the mine’s operations.

“(The mine) would wreak havoc on our environment and quality of life,” Wilk said upon introducing the bill. “Our children and seniors won’t be able to breathe, our roads will be choked daily with an additional 1,200 eighteen-wheelers, and the mega-mine will soak up our most precious resource, water. I’m committed to killing this project.”

A statement from his office explains it this way: “Back in 1991, Cemex’s predecessor-in-interest (Transit Mix Concrete) filed an application with the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for a water appropriation permit. The application requested 322 acre-feet of water per year from the Santa Clara River for use related to mining and industrial operations. Under current law, the administrative process allows for a protest period, and the SWRCB is required to hold a hearing as long as a protest remains unresolved or there is a disputed material fact. No hearing was held, and the SWRCB has essentially suspended activity on the application, although the status of the application is still considered active.”

Wilk’s bill would amend the water code to require a new notice of application if the SWRCB has not rendered a final determination on an application within 20 years. The new notice would reopen the protest period and other administrative processes. This, then, would provide opponents of the mine a valuable opportunity to have their concerns heard, should the mine rise from the ashes of the BLM’s dismissal of Cemex.

We at SAFE are thankful for the actions of both Rep. Knight and Assemblyman Wilk, which demonstrate they are not only attentive to this important issue but also willing to step up and take action before it becomes too late to do so.

Hopefully, both bills will receive favorable consideration and the SCV’s “Nightmare in Soledad Canyon” will end once and for all.

 

Andrew Fried is president of Safe Action for the Environment Inc. To find out more about SAFE, visit www.Safe4Environment.org.

 

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