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McKeon: Cemex options waning

Congressman says that ban on earmarks ties his hands in stopping sand-and-gravel mine

Posted: November 10, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: November 10, 2011 1:30 a.m.

Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon said Wednesday there’s slim chance of legislation passing that would stop a large-scale gravel mine in Soledad Canyon, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, introduced legislation in each of the previous six congressional sessions that would stop Mexico-based mining giant Cemex from building a mine on 500 acres of land in Soledad Canyon. The mine would extract 56 million tons of sand and gravel over 20 years.

This year, McKeon has not carried the legislation due to a House rule banning earmarks. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced the bill into the Senate, but without the legislation moving forward in both houses, analysts give it little chance of success.

The Soledad Canyon High Desert, California Public Lands Conservation Management Act awaits a hearing in a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Introduced by Boxer, who teamed with McKeon on anti-mine legislation last congressional session, the bill would ban mining in Soledad Canyon and the federal Bureau of Land Management would buy back the mining contracts it granted Cemex in 1990.

The BLM would raise the money to buy back the contracts by selling BLM land outside Victorville. Because of this, House leadership labeled the bill an earmark.

“Chances are very slim” that the Senate bill will pass, McKeon said during a Signal Editorial Board meeting Wednesday. But “it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility.”

He gave the bill a 10-percent chance of passing.

Although he doesn’t expect the current legislative proposal to pass, McKeon said he will “continue to seek a bipartisan solution” to the mining issue.

Considering the more than 250 bills passed by the House awaiting a Senate vote, he didn’t have high hopes for Boxer’s bill to make progress.

McKeon received a frank letter from the House’s Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., on Nov. 4 outlining why the legislation is an earmark and won’t be entertained by his committee.

“The House rule earmark definition leaves no other possible reading,” Hastings wrote. “Specifically, the legislation contains several instances where specific spending authority is provided to specific entities without an administrative or formula driven process, which are the basic tenets of an earmark in the House rule.”

McKeon said he wasn’t necessarily happy with the earmark ban or its definition, but that those were the rules.
“Earmarks can be good, for our district especially,” McKeon said. “We don’t get a lot of federal money without earmarks.”

He also expressed doubt that the earmark rules will survive much longer. The current congressional session ends in December 2012.

Asked what he could do short of introducing a companion bill to stop mining in Soledad Canyon, McKeon had a simple answer: “Nothing.”

“I’ll probably be the one to be blamed because I didn’t stop it,” McKeon said. “But I have to think it’s not going to be the end of the world” if mining begins in Soledad Canyon.

McKeon said though he’s one of the most powerful men in Congress — McKeon chairs the House Armed Services Committee — he’s still not able to do everything he wants to do.

Cemex has secured contracts to use the BLM’s mineral rights and, through a lawsuit, obtained a permit for surface mining from Los Angeles County.

Cemex officials have said they remain committed to the legislative alternative to the mine at this time. City officials said they, too, are focused on the Senate bill.

A truce between the city and Cemex expires Dec. 31.


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