Southern California’s unrelenting appetite for sand and gravel to build roads, houses and schools has led a multinational mining company to the hills above Santa Clarita.
But the very growth that drives the demand for gravel is also fueling a major backlash by residents of the area who fear more mining will ruin their community.
Mexico-based Cemex Inc., wants to mine 69 million tons of material from Soledad Canyon, about a mile from upscale housing developments in Valencia.
City leaders are fighting back with a $7-million campaign, leasing an 80-foot billboard next to the 14 Freeway showing a red slash through the words: “CEMEX MEGA MINING.” They are also sponsoring a letter-writing campaign urging elected federal and state officials to pass legislation aimed at downsizing or stopping the project.
And they are encouraging residents to write letters telling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger not to visit Cemex’s headquarters when he goes to Mexico on an upcoming trade mission.
To critics, the so-called mega mine would add nearly 1,200 big rigs to local freeways every day. Four times a week, 8,880 pounds of dynamite would be used for blasting, and gravel would be processed daily.
But just as important, city leaders fear that the mining operation would scar the landscape.
“They rape the community,” said Gail Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita. They take “the sand and rock and gravel and get out. We’re in it for generations, for our children and for our grandchildren.”
Although the loamy hills of the Santa Clarita Valley have been home to mining operations for decades, city leaders say the sand and gravel pit proposed by Cemex is too big for the fast-growing suburban area. They say the noise caused by dynamite blasts and subsequent air and water pollution, as well as increased traffic from trucks hauling material out of the canyon, will negatively affect the city’s 180,000 residents.
But their opposition runs counter to the region’s growing demand for concrete. Los Angeles County uses 34 million tons of sand and gravel, or aggregate, a year but produces only 5 million tons. The Soledad Canyon project will help to offset that imbalance, said Susana Duarte, a spokeswoman for Cemex USA in Houston.
“L.A. County is facing a deficit of aggregate and is scheduled to run out within 10 or 15 years,” Duarte said. “It needs this material for cities, schools, hospitals and roads.”
The need will only intensify, mine supporters say, as the region struggles to meet Schwarzenegger’s mandate to improve the state’s freeways, schools, jails, ports and waterways in coming years as the population climbs to 40 million by 2012. (Next month, voters will consider several public infrastructure bond measures backed by the governor).
Authorities say a regional retail center requires about 100,000 tons of aggregate, and each mile of a four-lane freeway uses roughly 400,000 tons. A 1,500-square-foot home requires 328 tons, with 35% used for the structure and the remainder for roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure.
State officials say supplies of aggregate from mines in Sun Valley and the San Gabriel Valley are dwindling.
In 1990, the federal Bureau of Land Management awarded Cemex a $28-million contract for 20 years’ mineral rights to the site. Cemex would extract 69 million tons of material to produce 59.1 million tons of sand and gravel.
Cemex plans to truck its product throughout the region, where it would be used to make concrete for construction, especially in the San Fernando Valley, Duarte said. She said trucking gravel from farther way would add to the costs of construction.
The project has been stuck in litigation between the two sides for four years, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that Cemex has a right to develop the quarry. Cemex plans to begin operations in two years.
The city still has three lawsuits pending against the project, and officials hope Cemex will be denied the permits it needs from state and federal regulatory agencies regarding water usage, air quality standards and the effects on native species, among other issues.
City leaders are so serious about thwarting the project that they have spent $7 million on legal efforts and a public relations campaign to denounce it, including buying the land. Although the Bureau of Land Management still maintains the mineral rights, ownership will allow the city to monitor mining activities, Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste said.
“It’s going to be one of the worst things that could possibly happen to this valley,” said Bob Baida, who lives in Stonecrest, the closest housing development.
“The Santa Ana winds come straight out of Soledad Canyon Pass and blow right through this valley. With that mining, it’ll pick up all sorts of particles; the small particles we don’t even think about. They cause a lot of havoc with people.”
Baida, 66, a retired Navy electrical engineer, said he fears his asthma will return when the mine opens. He said he has already had two windshields broken this year from gravel flying out of trucks, and he worries that the problem will get worse.
“This valley is a residential valley, and we’re selling our soul to a foreign company,” he said. “It’s unconscionable.”
But Cemex says traffic on the Antelope Valley Freeway will increase only 1.5% and that truck trips will be restricted during peak commute times in the mornings and evenings.
The company also notes that it is allowed to excavate only 17 hours a day Monday through Saturday.
Cemex officials also deny charges that they will eventually take down the mountain where the mine is located, saying that they plan to restore the area when they are finished in 20 years.
“Currently, the Soledad Canyon site is a large area scarred by decades of others’ mining,” Cemex’s website says. “But after our project, we will work with biologists, environmental specialists and diversity experts to restore Soledad Canyon to its natural state.”
City officials have said they are not against any mining in the canyon -- agreeing that the area has long been used to extract sand and gravel.
But they insist the Cemex plan is just too big.
“We promise the city will never rest,” Oritz said. “We are a small community up against a national and multinational corporation. This is such a David and Goliath struggle.”