Mixed IBLA decision weakens prospect of Cemex mining in Soledad Canyon

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

After four years of investigation, wrangling and debate, a federal review board has reached a decision in Cemex’s appeal of the contract-canceling decision made by the Bureau of Land Management in July 2015.

City officials described the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) ruling as a historic victory for opponents of the mine, while some observers are advising caution due to details and potential legal wrangling that could still favor Cemex.

The ruling released Wednesday indicates the BLM decision is “affirmed in part, reversed in part, set aside in part, and case remanded.”

The ruling also sent local politicians who have been warring against a “mega-mine” in Soledad Canyon over the past two decades into celebration mode.

Officials with the city of Santa Clarita called the ruling historic as it ends 20 years of  legal and legislative battles to stop the Mexican mining giant from ever mining gravel on the eastern edge of SCV.

On Wednesday, civic leaders focused their attention on one key aspect of the much-anticipated ruling — that all of Cemex’s mining rights in Soledad Canyon will expire in July 2020.

“Cemex has never done any mining in Soledad Canyon, and after today’s decision — they never will,” said Councilman Bob Kellar, a City Council Cemex subcommittee member. “Even though their contract will not expire ‘til 2020, it would take them at least three years to get their operation up and running.’

Repeated phone calls and emails placed with Cemex officials for comment were not returned Wednesday.

‘Monumental victory’

“The importance of this decision cannot be understated — this is a monumental victory for our residents and our environment,” Kellar said.

The city of Santa Clarita has been fighting to prevent mining in Soledad Canyon since the Cemex contracts were issued by the federal government in 1990.

The Cemex contracts would have allowed for the mining of 56 million tons of sand and gravel from Soledad Canyon, which would have added up to 1,164 truck trips a day to local roads and freeways.

Such a gravel mine operating on Soledad Canyon, city officials say, would have caused air quality issues and potential negative impacts to the Santa Clara River, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, wildlife corridors connecting the Angeles National Forest, as well as fish, wildlife and plants in the area.

“This is a historic win for residents of the city of Santa Clarita,” said Councilwoman Laurene Weste, a City Council Cemex subcommittee member.

“We have fought for the last 20 years to make sure our community was protected from the effects of this mega-mining project. It’s been a tough fight — fought by many, including our city, our elected officials and those at all levels of government, together with our community. I am ecstatic that all the hard work has finally paid off.”

Cemex appeal

On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior announced that the IBLA had reached a decision in Cemex’s appeal of the contract-canceling decision made by the Bureau of Land Management in July 2015, squashing the company’s right to mine the area.

“A BLM decision to cancel a mineral material sales contract for a breach of its terms by the purchaser of the contract will be set aside and the case remanded where BLM failed to afford the purchaser an opportunity to correct the breach, as required by (law).

“But the requirement that BLM afford the purchaser an opportunity for a hearing to challenge the breach under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 is satisfied by the opportunity to appeal to this board.”

The board’s decision will be the final word from the U.S. Department of the Interior, but the ruling may still be appealed to federal court.

A decision by the federal review board was expected by local officials by this time last year.

Practical implications

Mike Murphy, the intergovernmental relations manager for the city of Santa Clarita, said the ruling technically leaves Cemex with one of two contracts still valid, but without much time remaining.

“The practical implications of this ruling are that Cemex is left with a 16-month valid contract for a mine but they don’t have any of the permits in place,” he said.

In 1990, the BLM awarded Cemex two back-to-back 10-year mining contracts.

The first 10-year contract expired on July 31, 2010. The second 10-year contract picked up where the first one left off, and is set to expire July 31, 2020.

There is no practical way, Murphy said, that Cemex can obtain the permits it needs to begin mining.

“They would have to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and that takes a minimum of between 18 and 24 months,” he said. “They would also need permits from the (California) State Water Resources people.”

Omnibus bill

What about the prospect of mining being done in Soledad Canyon after the second Cemex contract expires next year?

Murphy said that, thanks to legislation submitted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., with the help of former Rep. Steve Knight last year, no mining can take place once the existing mining contracts expire.

Wording in the 2018 Omnibus spending bill, signed by President Donald Trump a year ago, precludes any mining operations in Soledad Canyon upon the conclusion or termination of existing contracts, according to Knight’s office.

Asked what Wednesday’s IBLA decision means for people living in the Santa Clarita Valley, Murphy said: “It means there will be no mining in Soledad Canyon.”

“I am 100 percent confident that this (ruling) is going to stick,” Murphy said.

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