Posted: December 11, 2014 9:07 a.m.
Updated: December 11, 2014 7:08 p.m.
A bill aimed at blocking development of the proposed Cemex sand and gravel mine in Canyon Country passed the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, bringing renewed hope to legislators and Santa Clarita city officials who have long sought to resolve the years-long mine matter.
“This tremendous achievement is the result of more than two decades of tireless work to develop a practicable solution that would take the Soledad Canyon Mine out of commission and lift this burden off of the backs of my constituents,” said the bill’s sponsor, Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, in a statement Thursday.
McKeon introduced his latest bill, the Soledad Canyon Settlement Act, on Nov. 19.
The bill’s passage comes as McKeon nears the finish line of his 22-year run as the Santa Clarita Valley’s representative in Congress.
McKeon said he has introduced eight bills aimed at blocking development of the mine, “each of which took a different approach to dealing with the mine as new issues arose.”
“This day has been a long time coming, and I could not be more grateful to everyone who has devoted their time and energy to get the Soledad Canyon Settlement Act over the finish line,” McKeon said.
On Thursday, McKeon extended his thanks to Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., for their help in getting the bill put to a vote.
“They know I’ve been working on this for a long, long time — they wanted to do what they could to help me and they knew it was important to me and my district,” McKeon told The Signal in an interview Thursday. “So they were able to help me get it to the floor.”
The matter now goes to the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has also introduced legislation aimed at resolving the Cemex mine issue. Boxer introduced her latest Cemex bill on Nov. 18.
“It could all be done if she’ll do it over there in the Senate,” McKeon said of Boxer. “I just hope with all my heart it gets done because that would be great. I would feel like I’m not leaving anything unfinished.”
McKeon added his gratitude to both Boxer and Congressman Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, for “reaching across the aisle to achieve such a resounding and bipartisan victory.”
The current congressional session is drawing rapidly to a close, threatening to halt the dramatic last-minute progress short of the finish line. As of Thursday, Boxer was working with her Senate colleagues to get support for the measure.
“The momentum has shifted in our favor, but we’re not there yet,” Boxer said.
Sherman spoke in favor of the legislation on the floor of the House and said Thursday he has been a regular supporter of legislative solutions to the mine issue, partly because of the effects the mine could have on traffic and partly because “those of us in the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita Valley are good neighbors.”
But he said even he was caught a bit off guard by how quickly the bill was able to come up for a vote in the House.
“I thought until this morning that this bill was a 2015 bill, and in fact I’d already called (Congressman-elect) Steve Knight and told him I was looking forward to working with him on this,” Sherman said Thursday.
Knight was elected in November to take over for McKeon as the Santa Clarita Valley’s representative in Congress.
Sherman pointed out the bill came to the House floor on what could be McKeon’s last legislative day and praised its bipartisan support.
“This is the way government is supposed to work,” he said. “I mean, there aren’t too many folks here in Washington with a more liberal reputation than Barbara Boxer or a more conservative reputation than ‘Buck’ McKeon, and yet they have identical legislation introduced in both of their houses.”
Hastings also spoke in favor of the bill Thursday.
“Mr. McKeon has been a tireless advocate on behalf of his local communities,” said the Washington state Republican, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. “He has demonstrated patience and diligence in pursuing a workable solution that Congress can successfully act upon.”
Hastings also expressed hope that the legislation would move through the Senate and said McKeon should be commended for his work on the matter.
“This would be kind of the capstone on the career that he has had,” Hastings said.
“With the interest that Sen. Boxer has shown on this issue, I hope that she can move this legislation through the Senate,” he added.
It appeared last week that the congressional session would end before McKeon’s bill could gain traction, particularly after it was not included in the text of the latest National Defense Authorization Act, which included language related to dozens of public land bills.
McKeon, though, said Thursday the NDAA “has never been the proper legislative vehicle to attach the Soledad Canyon mine legislation to.”
The bill was brought to the floor of the House Thursday as a stand-alone measure and was approved by voice vote.
Though the prospects of the bill in the Senate are unclear, Sherman said one thing is certain: “We have never been this close.”
The city of Santa Clarita has been battling the Cemex mine for about 15 years.
Reached by phone Thursday, City Councilwoman Laurene Weste called the latest development in the long-running Cemex saga “an answer to our prayers.”
“It strongly represents the nature of who we are as a country,” Weste said. “When things are worked on together for the greater good, they can get done. It just takes time.”
City officials have long said the mine would pollute Santa Clarita Valley air and choke Highway 14 with gravel trucks.
“It’s the greatest blessing for this community to have that concluded on the House side and to move ahead,” Weste said. “It impacts so many parts of our daily lives and how we live in this valley.
“I am extremely proud that the congressman got support on both sides of the aisle,” Weste added.
City Councilman Bob Kellar said Thursday, “In my 15 years on the City Council, this is by far the best day.”
“Enough cannot be said for the huge effort put forth by so many to bring us to this point,” Kellar said. “We are particularly appreciative of our congressman, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, for his hard work over the years.
“It is so nice that his bill was successful while he was still in office,”
The bills from Boxer and McKeon would direct the Bureau of Land Management to cancel mining contracts held by Cemex, a multi-national mining firm.
Those contracts, which were awarded to Cemex in 1990, allow the firm to extract 56 million tons of sand and gravel from hundreds of acres near the intersection of Soledad Canyon Road and Shadow Pines Boulevard in Canyon Country.
The bills would also prohibit future mining on the site.
The BLM would then be required to sell federal land near Victorville and use the proceeds from the sale to compensate Cemex for its contracts.
A new wrinkle in the Cemex legislation this time around is that Boxer’s bill was worded in such a way that it would receive a “zero score,” meaning it will not cost the government anything.
McKeon’s bill, which is a companion to Boxer’s, is worded the same way.
Both the city of Santa Clarita and Cemex have indicated support for the arrangement, while the BLM has resisted the proposal.
“Cemex fully supports this legislation and is optimistic of its passage in the Senate,” Cemex spokeswoman Sara Engdahl said Thursday. “We will continue to keep the lines of communication open with the city of Santa Clarita as we move closer to a resolution.”
Weste also praised Cemex for working with the city to resolve the matter.
“Cemex has been our partner and has been working hand-in-hand with us,” she said. “They are to be commended for being part of the solution here.”