Battle for Cemex site heats up in Congress

The Cemex mining site in Canyon Country. Dan Watson/The Signal

City officials and Santa Clarita’s representatives in Congress are battling in the legislative arena this week with both sides of the political aisle about a proposed gravel mine in Soledad Canyon.

Rep. Steve Knight’s office said Tuesday he’s been working with multiple offices and is close to unveiling legislation that he believes will permanently address the mine site.

“Since he first took federal office, Congressman Knight has placed the Soledad Canyon issues at the top of his local priorities, and he believes he is very close to delivering a permanent solution to this problem,” the statement said.

“In working with the speaker’s office, the majority leader and the Natural Resources Committee, he is working on producing workable legislative language that both chambers of Congress can get behind so this issue is no longer used as a political bargaining chip. Rather than playing the blame game, he’s focused on solving this once and for all.”

The problem in question is the city’s more than two-decade-long fight to stop a sand-and-gravel mining operation from opening along the city’s eastern border. Santa Clarita Intergovernmental Relations Manager Michael Murphy confirmed Knight is working on a comprehensive bill that would address the needs of the city, Cemex and legislators.

“Mr. Knight has indicated to the city that he is working on a more comprehensive legislative approach that he thinks might meet everyone’s needs,” he said.

Murphy said H.R. 1557, or the Soledad Canyon Consistency Act, has faced significant opposition since being referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on March 30. Murphy said Knight “is getting a lot of pushback.”

The city was working concurrently with Sen. Dianne Feinstein on a bill that essentially took the concept within the Soledad Canyon Consistency Act — removing the contested mine site from under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior as part of the Senate appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior for the fiscal year ending in September.

The government runs out of funding Thursday unless Congress passes a clean budget bill, which could include Feinstein’s measure, or a continuing resolution, which wouldn’t include Feinstein’s bill. Murphy said the measure is “sitting in the conference committee,” which has members of both houses of Congress.

Feinstein’s bill sparked a letter written by three Republicans to the top-two members of each chambers’ appropriations committee asking that her bill not be part of any government spending omnibus measure.

“This misguided provision, included at the behest of a Democratic senator, represents another political attempt to short-circuit Cemex’s Soledad operations and prevent the company from fulfilling two contracts issued by the (Bureau of Land Management),” the letter said. “A similar amendment put forth in the House was withdrawn due to overwhelming opposition and impending failure.”

The letter went on to describe the mine site as “in the middle of nowhere.”

Representatives at Knight’s office said the amendment referenced wasn’t the Soledad Canyon Consistency Act and Knight said Tuesday that House leadership has told him Feinstein’s bill was “dead in the water.”

A copy of the letter given to The Signal by the city showed 15 signers — all Republicans. Knight said the letter was generated by the Western Caucus and that while he was aware of the letter, he did not sign it.

Mayor Laurene Weste sent a rebuttal letter on behalf of the City Council Jan. 22, which was also given to The Signal, saying the pro-Cemex letter had “significantly incorrect statements.”

“At the request of the City of Santa Clarita, Sen. Dianne Feinstein requested and advocated for language to be placed within the Senate version of the fiscal year 2018 (Department of Interior) appropriations bill to address an issue of long-standing in our community,” Weste wrote. “We find it both erroneous and offensive that the letter from your colleagues suggests that Senator Feinstein was motivated by any purpose other than to be directly responsive to the request of elected officials representing a city in her state.”

Weste added that Feinstein’s bill would not cancel or modify the contracts.

Knight said resolving the Cemex mine has been the top priority since he was first elected to Congress.

“We’re as close to a fix on Cemex as we’ve ever been,” Knight told The Signal during a meeting last month. “We’ve put everything on the table. We’re in close contact with the city, we seem to talk to them every week probably once or twice either at my office or on a conference call with me and everything’s on the table. We think there is a good path to get there, we think we can do this, but you’re trying to keep a whole bunch of frogs in the wheelbarrow and everybody’s got to be going the same direction.”

Abandoned equipment stands at the Cemex site in Canyon Country. Dan Watson/The Signal


The Legal Battle
The city was sued by Cemex in December, with the company alleging a breach of contract, civil rights violations, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and declaratory relief in response to city plans to annex the mine site.

When asked whether the city would withdraw the mine site from the planned annexation, a city spokesperson declined comment, citing closed session discussions.

The lawsuit said the city has made “numerous and deliberate violations of a settlement agreement between Cemex and the city that resolved prior litigation brought by Cemex several years ago challenging the city’s improper efforts in 2005 to annex Cemex’s mining site, in much the same way as the city seeks now in 2017 to improperly annex that same Cemex mining site, along with other improper actions.”

The lawsuit said the city tried to annex the site in order to manage the site and shut down the mining project.

“Now, 12 years after signing the settlement agreement, the city and its affiliates are acting in total disregard of the settlement agreement’s terms and have breached the agreement in multiple ways,” the lawsuit said. “The city has once again proposed to annex the Soledad Canyon Project site, once again without the environmental review and notices to Cemex that are required under the settlement agreement and state law.”

The lawsuit said the city proposed annexing 4.21 square miles — 2,694.4 acres — that would include nearly all of the mine site during a Nov. 14 City Council meeting. The lawsuit said the city provided a 21-day public comment period, but didn’t notify Cemex or the Bureau of Land Management.

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