Cemex petitions state water board to cancel new review of mine permit

Signal file photo
Signal file photo

By Signal Staff 

Cemex Inc. has petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board, seeking to set aside a decision to reopen the review of the mining company’s water permit for Cemex’s proposed 56-million-ton sand and gravel mine in Soledad Canyon. 

In a six-page letter from attorney Kerry Shapiro of San Francisco-based Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP, the Mexico-based multinational mining company contends that neither the project nor downstream water users’ circumstances have sufficiently changed in the past 30 years to warrant re-noticing the project. 

The letter says Cemex is petitioning the state water board to vacate its executive director’s June 1 decision that the application “to appropriate 0.95 cubic-feet/second (not to exceed 322-acre-feet/year) from the Santa Clara River must be re-noticed.” 

“The decision is improper because none of the criteria justifying re-noticing the application, as established by 23 Cal. Code Regs. § 684(b), have been met,” said the letter, dated Wednesday. “Specifically: (1) there have been no changes in Cemex’s application or project, and (2) there are no changes, related to this application, in the circumstances of any affected downstream water users or other interested persons. Absent changes to either Cemex’s project or to downstream users, there is no factual or legal basis that justifies re-noticing the application.” 

An official with the state water board wrote Thursday “the ex-parte rule is in place so we can’t comment on the petition for reconsideration.”  

After a decades-long legislative and legal battle, Cemex is seeking to mine up to 56 million tons of sand and gravel from a Soledad Canyon site that is just beyond the eastern border of the city of Santa Clarita. Its Soledad mining contracts with the federal Bureau of Land Management date back to 1990, but in addition to the federal contracts, the mine requires additional entitlements, including the state water permit. 

The city of Santa Clarita has been fighting to stop the mine since the 1990s, and multiple legislators at the state and federal levels have worked to stop it along the way. The BLM canceled the Cemex mining contracts in 2015, citing non-performance, which kicked off a series of appeals and legal battles culminating in a 2022 federal court decision reinstating the contracts. 

The original state water application was filed in 1991 and the state water board opened it for public comment in 1993. According to the letter from Cemex’s attorney, only 10 objections were raised to the project at that time — four of which were dismissed or rejected and two of which were withdrawn.  

Of the four remaining objections, three are now consolidated under one entity — the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency, as a result of water company and agency mergers and acquisitions in the three decades that have passed — and one brought by the United Water Conservation District, of Ventura County. 

The letter from Cemex’s attorney contends that only those two remaining objections should be considered in its application, rather than re-noticing the application for public input, as announced in a June 1 letter from Eileen Sobeck, executive director of the state water board. 

The Cemex letter also contends that the water board staff decision was politically motivated, based on the fact that legislators, including two local representatives who have carried bills to ensure the re-noticing of the public review, were cc’d on Sobeck’s letter to Cemex.  

Both state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, and Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo, D-Chatsworth, have carried bills stating that if the State Water Resources Control Board has not rendered a final determination on an application for a permit to appropriate water for uses, including mining, within 30 years from the date the application was filed, the board would be required to issue a new notice and provide an opportunity for protests before rendering a final determination, with specified exceptions. 

Wilk and Schiavo have worked across the aisle in cooperation to advocate the legislation, the current version of which, Schiavo’s Assembly Bill 1631, has passed the Assembly and awaits a July 10 hearing before the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. The bill would essentially codify into law the decision announced in the June 1 state water board letter. 

Wilk, reached Wednesday evening, said those who oppose the mine should continue working together to oppose it in the face of Cemex’s legal posturing. 

“They’re all in on trying to open this mega-mine and we collectively have to realize that, and work together to make sure that it never happens,” Wilk said. “The fact is, the water resources board is right. Thirty years have passed, the circumstances have changed, and it warrants a re-look.” 

Wilk said that, in Sobeck’s original letter, “They said why they were doing what they were doing, and they have attorneys, too.” 

The senator added that drought, major growth and increased traffic, coupled with the long-standing environmental issues like air quality and water quality, make it clear the mine should not proceed without additional review. And, he said, much has changed in three decades. 

Wilk added: “All those things — there’s just no way to mitigate those impacts.” 

Schiavo said Thursday that she continued to be hopeful the state’s water board would move forward with the statewide process to ensure residents get an opportunity to share their concerns about the project, which is being planned upstream from a critical resource. 

“This is exactly why we didn’t drop our bill,” Schiavo said, “and feel like we need to continue to move forward and make sure there’s a process at the state level, so that our community has a voice on something that is going to directly impact a core source of water for the SCV.” 

The mine would basically be uphill from the Santa Clara River, which starts high in the Angeles National Forest, flows down into Ventura County and into the estuary at McGrath State Beach, surrounded by more than 12 million people, according to The Nature Conservancy.  

“The Santa Clara River is a vital source of drinking water for the local community,” according to nature.org, “as well as a key resource for many prosperous farms. It also offers some of the last riverside and freshwater habitat for wildlife in the bustling Los Angeles-Ventura region.” 

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