Tim Whyte | Cemex and Politicians Dancing in the End Zone

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

Remember the “Thank You, Buck?” banners?

They went up on more than a dozen bridges and overpasses around town, thanking then-Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, for introducing a bill that would put a dagger through the heart of the proposed Cemex megamine in Soledad Canyon.

“Thank You, Buck, for HR 5471! No Mega Mining in Soledad Canyon.”

It was reminiscent of former President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner when he gave a speech aboard an aircraft carrier in 2003, jumping the gun a bit in describing the status of combat operations in Iraq.

You see, the “Thank You, Buck” banners were only about 13 years too early: McKeon’s HR 5471, one of a fistful of McKeon bills aimed at stopping Cemex from mining 56.1 million tons of aggregate in Soledad Canyon, had not yet passed.

Nor would it pass. 

But, as many wags noted, the banners went up in August 2006 — a scant few months before McKeon was up for re-election in November 2006.  

It was one of those “things that make you go ‘Hmmm…’” moments in our valley’s history. 

McKeon, in his years in Congress, may not have gotten legislation passed to stop the mine, but those repeated efforts were effective in keeping the issue on the minds of Santa Clarita Valley residents at a time when public momentum was considered a valuable resource in trying to stop the mine.

And make no mistake: While the mine might help satiate Southern California’s appetite for cheap concrete, it would be disastrous for those who live near it. The truck traffic would be the least of the problems. Air quality impacts would be potentially devastating, especially for vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and those with existing respiratory conditions. 

Water quality impacts, wildlife impacts, noise, visual aesthetics — all bad.

Local leaders wanted, so very badly, for one of McKeon’s bills to succeed. And on some level, the bills did succeed, in terms of awareness and, for McKeon, sending the message to voters that he was “working for us.”

McKeon’s successor, Palmdale Republican Steve Knight, picked up the Cemex torch and also carried legislation designed to prevent mega-mining in Soledad Canyon. Like McKeon, he was not able to gain passage of a bill to kill the Cemex mine, per se, but he did accomplish something else: He secured language in an omnibus bill, signed last year by President Trump, that precludes any future mining in Soledad Canyon upon the conclusion or termination of existing contracts.

What does that mean? It means once the two existing Cemex contracts were either canceled or expired, there will be no future mining. That’s big, because believe it or not, there’s a good chance the massive Cemex mine would have been just the tip of the iceberg.

After this week’s big news that the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) had upheld key provisions of the 2015 decision by the Bureau of Land Management to cancel the Cemex contracts, many local leaders understandably celebrated a well-deserved victory. In particular, local activists, the city of Santa Clarita and several current and past City Council members have played key roles in this battle that has stretched more than two decades.

McKeon, to his credit, acknowledged the accomplishment of his successor. Said the former congressman: “Well, if anybody should be claiming victory, it should be Steve (Knight) because he did get that legislation passed after I retired.” 

It’s a good point. Knight’s legislation, combined with the IBLA ruling, makes it seem highly unlikely that a massive aggregate mine will be developed in Soledad Canyon, since the second Cemex contract is set to expire in about a year and a half.

Knight, for his part, didn’t do much of a touchdown dance in the end zone: 

“What we wanted was a positive decision that they weren’t going to get their appeal, and I think that’s what we’re taking away from this,” Knight said. “The jurisdiction (for mining permits) would come under the Army Corps of Engineers, and Cemex would have to go through the most extensive review imaginable, and between that and the legislation it puts them well behind the 8 ball on this.” 

Current Rep. Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce, took the opportunity to spike the ball. 

Hill’s office issued a press release just a few days before the ruling came out, saying she’d sent a letter asking the IBLA to announce a decision ASAP. It has, after all, been nearly four years. 

Then, lo and behold, a few days later, the IBLA released the ruling. It was almost as if Hill’s office knew it was coming. 

Her staff then issued a press release with the headline, “Katie Hill Lands Early Decision from Interior Board of Land Appeals on CEMEX Mine.”

The first two paragraphs said: 

“At the request of Congresswoman Katie Hill, and thanks to many years of local advocacy, the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) has issued an expedited ruling on the dispute between the City of Santa Clarita and CEMEX USA.

“‘The CEMEX mine has been an issue for our community for decades,’ said Hill. ‘I am so proud that we were able to get IBLA to issue an early decision and finally give our City the answers they deserve.’”

Early? It’s been almost four years. It was going to happen sometime, one way or another. 

Then, when the city staged a press conference to celebrate the IBLA ruling, the congresswoman made sure to show up and bask in the glory.

Flag on the play?

It’s at least ironic. Less than a month before she was elected, Hill, who lives near the proposed mine site, didn’t even think Cemex was a big deal. Here’s what she said in a debate with the incumbent, 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.”

Now, in all fairness: I have been told Hill and her team actually have been solidly engaged in the Cemex issue since she took office in January. So, I think she does deserve credit for that. She didn’t go to Washington and ignore it — she went to Washington and did the right thing. She went to work on it. We should appreciate that, even if it seems like she’s capturing a disproportionate share of the spotlight for a two-decade battle that, as recently as six months ago, she didn’t think was a very big deal.

And, our new congresswoman is displaying quite of a bit of savvy just a few months into her term: She’s already learned how important it is in the political game to grab all the credit you can. That’s a longstanding Washington tradition, for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Mission accomplished, indeed.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.  

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