A 'Plan B' State Strategy to Stop the CEMEX Mega-Mine

[This opinion editorial was originally published in the Santa Clarita Gazette - click here to read it on the Santa Clarita Gazette's website.]

The most important local issue affecting our community is actually a federal government decision that allows mega-mining in Soledad Canyon.

The history is as follows: In 1990, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued two 10-year contracts to mine 56 million tons of aggregate from a site near Soledad Canyon Road and the 14 Freeway. Through the years, there have been a number of owners, but the current owner is CEMEX – a Mexican mining company.

How large is the mine? Well, if you have ever driven the 610 Freeway passing through Irwindale, it pales in comparison to the proposed CEMEX mega-mine, which would be the largest aggregate mine in the country.

According to the Safe Action for the Environment, Inc. (SAFE) the scale of the mining would be nearly 20 times larger than what is currently mined in Soledad Canyon today, and it will last for 20 years. The daily operation of the mine would result in 18-wheelers and gravel trucks entering and departing from the mine every 2 minutes, which would add 1,200 trucks to our local roads daily. The dust created by the mine would greatly harm our air quality and would exceed acceptably safe levels by nearly 200%.

Last August, under pressure from Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) and California's two U.S. Senators, the BLM announced it had canceled CEMEX's Soledad Canyon mining contracts. However, CEMEX has appealed that decision and it could take as long as two years to get a final adjudication.

Fortunately, Congressman Knight has stayed aggressive and recently introduced a bill with bi-partisan support that would withdraw the mineral rights in Soledad Canyon, effectively preventing CEMEX or any other company from mining there in the future. I applaud these efforts.

Although a federal issue, there is a role for the state to play in the permitting process of the mega-mine. That's where my proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 1986, comes into play.

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.

Existing law requires the publication of a notice of application to appropriate water and requires protest to be filed within a certain period of time after publication of a notice of application.

AB 1986 would amend the water code to require the publication of new notice of application if the SWRCB has not rendered a final determination on an application within 20 years from its original filing date. The new notice would re-open the protest period and any other administrative processes, as if it were being undertaken for the first time.

During the 25-year application process, a significant number of issues have arisen.

First, California has been in a serious four-year drought and is currently pulling massive amounts of water from the Santa Clara River. The Santa Clara River is the last natural river in Southern California and its preservation positively affects communities from Agua Dulce to Ventura.

Additionally, there are efforts to expand the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument farther into the Santa Clarita Valley and the mega mine would affect that federal government decision.

Finally, in 1990, the city of Santa Clarita had a population of 132,700 and today it's more than 209,000. According to the Southern California Association of Government, by 2030 our valley should be around 550,000 residents.

Although I believe this project should never have been permitted, the facts, more than ever, reveal that this massive project would be an unmitigated disaster for the Santa Clarita Valley.

Hopefully we will be successful at the federal level in killing the mega-mine, but I'll fight hard for our “Plan B” to preserve the valley's water, air quality, and beauty for future generations.