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Monday, June 2, 2008

Congressman's Bill May End Mining Threat to Connection Between North L.A. County Wildlife Areas

By Stephen K. Peeples

Santa Clarita Valley Signal Online Editor
May 18, 2008 .

At a news conference outside his Santa Clarita Valley office on April 25, U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon unveiled a breakthrough agreement that could halt a nearly decade-long battle between the city of Santa Clarita and global mining company Cemex, Inc. over a planned large-scale mine in Soledad Canyon.

For the first time, Cemex is on board with new legislation that McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, has introduced that would effectively end any chance the company could mine at the Soledad Canyon site.

As it stands right now, Cemex has two, 10-year mining contracts with the federal Bureau of Land Management, and is authorized to mine up to 5 million tons of sand and gravel annually on 400 acres of land in Soledad Canyon.

The city of Santa Clarita has long opposed the mine as a scourge that would add pollution and unwanted traffic to Hwy. 14. To date, the city has spent more than $8 million fighting the plans and in February 2007, the city and Cemex announced a truce to allow all the parties work out an agreement through legislation.

The resulting bill, HR 5887, tagged the Soledad Canyon Mine Act of 2008, is McKeon's fourth attempt to reach an agreement through legislation, but it's the first bill Cemex has supported.

HR 5887 would cancel the Cemex-BLM contracts. In exchange, Cemex would be given thousands of acres of BLM-controlled land in Victorville equivalent to the value of the contracts. Cemex would then be able to sell the land to the city of Victorville and other private buyers for purposes other than mining, which would be a separate agreement between those two parties.

At the news conference, representatives from Cemex, Victorville and Santa Clarita joined McKeon to call the proposed legislation a "win-win-win."

Local delegation
HR 5887 may be a creative solution resulting from years of blood, sweat and tears, but it still needs to gain support from both of California's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Barabara Boxer, D-Calif., be OK'd (or at least not opposed) by the BLM, approved in Washington by Congress, and signed into law by the president.

"We know there are many potential obstacles," McKeon conceded at the news conference. "There are lots of steps and we'll be working to be as expeditious as possible. With all the major players on board, we have a strong team to take this legislation proposal back to Washington and begin the uphill process of working it through Congress."

A week later, a contingent of city officials including Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar, Councilwoman Laurie Ender, Intergovernmental Relations Officer Mike Murphy, Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin and city lobbyist Cy Jamison were in Washington, D.C. and sat in on a strategy session with McKeon's staff and Cemex reprsentatives.

"We just sat down and went through the normal things you go through when a bill is introduced, and said, ‘OK, what do we need to do in terms of getting the bill moved through the congressional legislative process?'" Murphy said.

On May 8, between votes on the floor of the House of Representatives, McKeon provided a closer look into the first steps being taken.

"The process has started," he confirmed. "I hand-delivered copies of the bill to the chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources (Nick Rayhall, D-W.Va.) and the next senior member of the committee, George Miller, D-Calif., also chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. They gave the bill to the committee staff, and they have already jumped on it. They've contacted my office to get background on the bill and what we're trying to accomplish, and to see what they can do help us in moving it forward. I have followed back up with (Rayhall) and let him know that this is very important to me and we need to move on it as quickly as we can."

The Resources Committee could take one of a few different paths from here, McKeon said. "They could hold a hearing about the bill, they could hold a markup on the bill, or they could even try to move it under a suspension, which would mean it's a non-controversial bill and it is brought to the floor."

Quickest, easiest way

Bills moved to the floor under suspension usually pass, but need a two-thirds majority. "That would be the quickest, easiest way because you don't have to go to the Rules Committee and then bring it to the floor, where people have a chance to pick it apart and change it," McKeon said. "So (suspension) would be my first preference."

If not fast-tracked, the committee would schedule a hearing. "We would get experts from the community to testify on (the bill's behalf,) but I'm trying to speed the process by avoiding (a hearing) if we can," he said.

Along with hand-delivering HR 5887 in Washington, McKeon and his staff have sent letters to California legislators seeking co-sponsorhip of the bill, which will improve chances of its passage, and he has followed up. "I have talked with a few of them personally to ask them to co-sponsor," he said.

If the Resources Committee determines it doesn't want to consider HR 5887 as a free-standing bill, they could attach it to another bill that may be moving through the process. "That's not a real strategy, but more of an option," McKeon said. "In the House, you can't attach a non-germane item, but in the Senate, you can add anything to a bill."

McKeon is also trying to determine where the BLM - an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior that manages more land (258 million surface acres) than any other federal agency - will stand on this round of legislation.

Ten years ago, he said, the BLM director told him in one of multiple meetings that the agency's legal counsel said the BLM could not support a bill then being proposed. The latest bill has a much better chance, plus there's now a different Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, and a different BLM director, Jim Caswell.

"I've met with the Secretary and he's been supportive to this point," McKeon said. "That doesn't mean that he would support this specific bill, but he's been supportive of our efforts, and we're hopeful that if the BLM don't support the bill at least they remain neutral and don't oppose it."

McKeon and his staff are looking to Santa Clarita officials to help rally support on the city and state levels in California, and win the backing of Sen. Feinstein, who has had reservations about previous efforts to block additional mining in and around Soledad Canyon. "Ultimately, the bill has to pass in both (the House and Senate), so it'll be very important for the city to put their efforts toward working with her," he said.

Cemex was among the issues city officials discussed with Sen. Feinstein when she visited the city last year, and she had reservations about blocking future mining in the Soledad Canyon area.

"Her concern I think first of all is the availability of aggregate in the state of California," Murphy said. "The other issue was the exchange of values and resources, and how the mechanics of that would work. Basically, under federal law, if the BLM were to sell that property outright to a buyer, a minimum of 80 percent of the proceeds of the sale would come back into the state of California for use to purchase or to enhance federal lands. So we needed to look at a strategy that in essence creates a zero sum gain for the exchange."

"(Sen. Feinstein) gave the city some recommendations, some of which they have proceeded forward with and some of which were not feasible," McKeon said. "That's why it's important for them to follow up now and let her know they have endorsed (HR 5887) and fully support it, as do the city of Victorville and Cemex."

Both McKeon and Murphy urged Santa Clarita Valley citizens to contact both Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Boxer to let them know the community is behind the latest legislative effort, with Victorville and Cemex now on board.

"We want to address issues they may view from the Senate's side, so that by the time we get the bill over there we will have resolved those issues," Murphy said.

More lobbying planned
Murphy added that city officials are planning another trip to Washington next week to follow up with members of Congress and/or their representatives, to make sure they've received McKeon's letter seeking co-sponsorship, and be available to talk about the bill and answer any questions potential sponsors may have.

Locally, Murphy said, "We're reaching out to a number of groups and organizations that have previously supported our efforts, and identifying groups or individuals we would like to have on board in support of the bill, asking them to support the measure."

The city's outreach extends beyond the Santa Clarita Valley. "If local residents have family or friends in other parts of the state or the country, they can urge them to communicate with their own members of Congress that they think the bill is a good thing," Murphy said. "The more they hear about it in Congress, the better."

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