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Boxer-sponsored bill is last-ditch try to block Cemex mine

Politics: Company has the federal support to move forward with operations if bill fails

Posted: February 14, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 14, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Mining and airborne dust in Soledad Canyon, along with a daily parade of gravel trucks on Highway 14, would likely become fixtures if an omnibus bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., goes off the rails in the Senate, according to the city official monitoring Santa Clarita's relationship with Washington, D.C.

“What Cemex has told us is, in the absence of the legislation, they will move forward with getting the mine permitted,” said Michael P. Murphy, intergovernmental relations officer for the city of Santa Clarita.

Years ago, Cemex obtained favorable court decisions allowing it to mine, Murphy said.

“They don’t need to do anything else,” he said. “They can go out tomorrow and mine.

“They said to us years ago, ‘You know, if we get pressed up against the wall, we’ve got these federal court decisions, we have the right by the federal government to do this, and we’re going to do it.’”

The city has been battling the proposed mine for more than a decade, saying it would compromise air quality in the Santa Clarita Valley and add an enormous amount of truck traffic to Highway 14.

In 2007, Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, announced a land swap deal that would provide Cemex with land elsewhere in Southern California in exchange for abandoning its Soledad Canyon mining rights.

But the plan failed to gain necessary support in Congress, despite the approval of all parties directly involved.

Recently, congressional earmark policies made the deal seem less hopeful than ever.

However, Cemex officials say they are standing optimistically behind the omnibus bill introduced by Boxer that would incorporate the land swap as part of an overall package of legislation.

In a formal statement sent to The Signal last week, Cemex said it “looks forward to working with Sen. Boxer and her staff to introduce essentially the same bill that was introduced last Congress. We remain hopeful that the work we have done with the city of Santa Clarita over the last two Congresses will produce a positive outcome this year.”

News out of Washington about specific spending for specific local projects — part of the definition of the now-banned “earmarks” — has not been positive.

While Cemex officials await the outcome of the Boxer Senate bill, they’ve been actively obtaining state, local and regional permits, in an apparent effort to bolster its case to start mining.

“Right now, they’ve told us we’re going to get those state, local and regional permits,” Murphy said.

The local permits, he suspects, are being sought, and obtained by Cemex, to provide the company with additional legal protection.

Mining implications
If Cemex chooses to act on the court decisions it’s had for the last decade and start mining, will cement dust be an issue?

It is in Ohio.

On Friday, federal officials said Cemex Inc. has agreed to pay $1.4 million for Clean Air Act violations at its southwest Ohio cement plant, according to The Associated Press.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department say Cemex will spend about $2 million on pollution controls to “reduce harmful emissions” of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide at its Fairborn, Ohio, plant.

The government also says Cemex, which is headquartered in Mexico, did not have a proper permit.

A statement from Houston-based Cemex USA says it agreed to the penalty. But Cemex says allegations that plant emissions compromise health and safety are “false.”

It also says air quality around the plant exceeds federal standards and the plant always has complied with its air operating permits.

The $1.4 million will go to the U.S., Ohio and the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency.

‘Surplus land’
Cemex purchased mining contracts from the Bureau of Land Management in 1990 to open the proposed 56-million-ton sand and gravel mine in Soledad Canyon.

Under the Boxer bill first introduced at the end of the last congressional session, if Cemex leaves Soledad Canyon, it will be compensated through the sale of three specific tracts of land north of Victorville, just west of Interstate 15.

The land is owned by federal government, managed by the BLM and deemed “surplus land” already identified as disposable.

The bill would direct the U.S. secretary of the interior to call for the sale of each of the three blocks of land. Proceeds would be deposited into a federal Treasury bank account and set aside to pay the first contract holder, which is Cemex.

If the lands sell for $100 million, for example, Cemex would be paid about $40 million, according to Murphy, and the balance of $60 million would be left to the federal government, available to pay for any additional administrative costs.

The plan is not new to the federal government, Murphy said.

“This is not a precedent-setting case,” he said. “There were at least three similar bills adopted over about the last 10 years.
So this is not new territory for Congress.”


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