By Tim Whyte
It was one of my earliest cloak-and-dagger experiences as a reporter. It was the early 1990s. I got a call from a guy — let’s call him John (not his real name) — who said he had information on a news story that would be the biggest ever to hit Santa Clarita.
He was cryptic. He wanted to meet me to talk about it, at a diner down in Van Nuys next door to a fleabag motel.
I was skeptical. (If it were today, I would have been concerned for my safety.) But I met the guy for lunch, and he brought a banker’s box of documents. (This was pre-internet.)
“John” said it was all about a massive proposed sand and gravel mine, right on the outskirts of Santa Clarita, that would pollute our air, threaten our water supply, endanger wildlife and dump more than 1,000 rock-spewing gravel trucks onto the 14 freeway every day.
In the box were records of the application, by a company called Southdown, to secure mining contracts from the Bureau of Land Management.
“John” was right.
Mexico-based CEMEX would soon acquire Southdown, and with it the proposed Soledad Canyon mega-mine. Within a few years, it would become one of the biggest and most long-running local stories ever.
The city of Santa Clarita launched an aggressive campaign to fight the mine. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon was asked to carry bills to stop the mine, and he did so, usually just in time for the community to hang “Thank you, Buck” banners from overpasses before an election.
Legal strategies were considered. Rallies were held. Dozens of elected officials — from both political parties — went on record opposing the mine. So did more than 100 organizations and public agencies, including every local school district and various environmental groups.
Fast forward to 2018: After two decades of negotiation with CEMEX and failed legislative attempts, two important things happened in the past few years:
1) The BLM in 2015 canceled the original mining contracts, which is an important step toward stopping the mine. However, CEMEX is appealing the cancellation and the Interior Board of Land Appeals is taking its sweet time reviewing the appeal. Since it was filed, all we’ve heard is crickets.
2) Rep. Steve Knight, who’s running for re-election Nov. 6, authored legislation — part of an omnibus appropriations bill signed into law by President Trump — that prevents any future mining on the site subsequent to those original contracts that are still under review by the IBLA. It bears noting that Knight and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein cooperated on the bipartisan legislation, the first major congressional victory directly affecting mega-mining in Soledad Canyon.
Knight touted his accomplishments on our community’s behalf during his opening statement in a debate last weekend against his Democratic challenger Katie Hill. (Video: signalscv.com/decision2018)
Said Knight: “In my first nine months in Congress, we did the No. 1 priority in this valley, and everyone talked about it. It was CEMEX. In nine months we turned around the contracts, 180 degrees, they cannot mine. CEMEX cannot mine. In my next session in Congress, we did a bill, making sure that there wouldn’t be any mining in that area in the future. That is a result.”
Knight added: “For the last 24 years, CEMEX has been the No. 1 issue. Absolutely anyone in Santa Clarita would say that.”
Hill sees it differently. Very differently. Her response to Knight:
“I’ve been a resident of Santa Clarita for most of my life. And Congressman Knight keeps saying that CEMEX is the No. 1 issue, and I hate to say it but that’s not the case for most people I know. And I think that CEMEX is an important issue of course, but it’s something that I hadn’t even heard of until relatively recently. And it’s certainly something that my parents, my friends, my family hadn’t heard of.”
Wait. What? That’s a jaw-dropping admission. Never HEARD of it?
Katie. This one should have been right in your wheelhouse. You’re a Democrat. It’s an environmental issue. This is a waist-high fastball right over the plate. Knight’s Republican predecessor, McKeon, introduced several bills that quietly died in committee. And, in his own statement, Knight omitted a pertinent fact: The contract cancellation is still subject to IBLA review, so you could say he’s overstating his achievement on the issue, at least for now.
Should’ve been a slam dunk for a Democratic challenger.
That is, if the challenger were at all in touch with the community she proposes to represent. I know there’s been some complacency in town the past few years, as the CEMEX issue waits on the IBLA. But how could any office seeker live in this community for the past 20 years and NOT be aware of it?
Hill lives in Agua Dulce — one of the communities that could most be devastated by the environmental and health impacts of a 56.1-million-ton surface mining operation just down the road, spewing microscopic particles of pollution into the air in close proximity to homes, the elderly and children in Santa Clarita, not to mention the small farm where Hill lives in Agua Dulce.
For me, Katie Hill’s ignorance of the CEMEX mine disqualifies her to represent this community in Congress. I can’t vote for someone so unaware and dismissive of the biggest federal issue ever to confront her hometown.
This is an opinion column. It’s on the opinion page, and clearly labeled as such. I’m under no obligation to seek response from the Hill campaign, yet, in spite of the way some of her supporters have treated me and this newspaper during this election season, I wanted to bend over backward to be fair.
So I asked the Hill campaign for a response, before I wrote this piece. They submitted a 300-word statement that delved into unrelated issues, and we’ll run the whole thing next week. But here’s what Hill said about the CEMEX question specifically:
“In our debate with The Signal, Steve Knight was asked what his top legislative priority will be if elected. Instead of answering, he discussed what he considered to be his greatest accomplishments to date – namely taking steps to close the CEMEX mine.
“I agree that taking common-sense steps to close the CEMEX mine is important. However, Steve Knight stated in his March editorial, ‘CEMEX Controversy Nearing an End,’ that he considers this job done. If we’re talking about our legislative agendas moving forward, let’s focus on the issues our communities still face every single day.”
That March editorial was actually written by Carl Goldman of radio station KHTS, not Steve Knight. (The congressman shared a link to it on his Facebook page.)
Another minor point of fact: We are still, indeed, facing the CEMEX mine issue, and Knight never said he took steps to “close the CEMEX mine.”
That’s because you CAN’T “close” the CEMEX mine.
It’s not open yet.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays.