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The Toad vs. the Big Cement Company 

L.A. County must take sides

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
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County supervisors will vote next week on a project that would demolish a great hunk of northern L.A. County‘s remaining natural habitat.

If they reject the long-delayed Transit Mix Concrete gravel-digging project, supervisors will stand with its fastest-growing and third largest city, Santa Clarita, which is suing several federal agencies for failing to protect rare species from the mining proposal.

The threatened area is near Soledad Canyon, an undeveloped and scenic valley of sage and woodlands two miles east of Santa Clarita. The city’s suit accuses the Department of the Interior and its subsidiaries, the U.S. Bureau of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management, of failing to protect three endangered species: the three-spine unarmored stickleback fish, the Southwestern arroyo toad and a scarce plant called the slender-horned spineflower.

The cement company wants to remove 78 million tons of rock and gravel from a 500-acre mountain site over the next 20 years. To do this, it will draw up to 748 acre feet of water annually -- enough to last 4,000 people for a year -- from the river. The project would return $28 million to the federal government in mineral-rights fees.

”The federal agencies here have fallen down on the job,“ said Peter Galvin, biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, on a recent tour of endangered and vanishing environmental sites. Galvin also points out that the city of Santa Clarita is generally pro-development and has elsewhere ignored the presence of the three named species -- plus many others -- that were in the path of local development. ”This appears to be a company town,‘’ Galvin said. “It‘s not like something you’d find in this era.”

The tour last month was hosted by local environmental organizations, including Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment -- which have fought the city‘s own purported depredations of the local landscape and now oppose Transit Mix’s plan.

Santa Clarita senior planner Don Williams said the lawsuit calls for examination of whether the stickleback would survive the massive amounts of water that would be drawn from the Santa Clara River for the project. The suit also mentions hazards to the Southwestern arroyo toad and spineflower and asserts that at “the least Bell‘s vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher and the California red-legged frog” are also probable Soledad Canyon dwellers.

Santa Clarita plans, by its own reckoning, to spend $1.5 million to fight the project. Its suit claims that the appropriate federal agencies haven’t done a good enough job of identifying the affected endangered species and implies a conflict of interest, since the government stands to make so much money on the project.

The cement company, a subsidiary of the gigantic Mexican Cemex concrete cartel, responds that it has been unfairly hobbled by the county, which has held up its operating permit.

The local county supervisor, Mike Antonovich, a conservative who in the past has often favored development, has led the board‘s opposition. “We haven’t asked of Cemex anything we would not ask of any other developer,” Antonovich said. “We need safeguards to protect the community and the endangered environment.”

In its own environmental-impact report, the firm says it intends to cover areas that lose gravel with soil and plants and to recycle the water it uses digging across the mountain. It also claims that excavation will be so quiet that residents won‘t even notice it.

Opponents say the project will operate 96 hours a week with nearly 700 daily truck trips and that there will be blasting several times a week.

It isn’t just the environmentalists who say the city‘s Transit Mix suit has hypocritical overtones, though. The local Newhall Signal newspaper -- which often disparages the local environmental movement -- recently noted that the Santa Clarita City Council just authorized a big-box development on the Golden Valley Ranch -- “already a federally listed critical habitat for the California coastal gnatcatcher, and the council approved [it] even though [its environmental] documents didn’t take the scarce little bird into consideration.” To complicate matters further, development opponents have threatened to sue the city for the Golden Valley authorization. Such a suit, the editorialist wrote, would put on the legal record the city‘s own environmental eradications within its boundaries. The newspaper further asserted that the city -- trying to build out its own downtown -- two years ago lobbied the same Fish and Wildlife Service that it is now suing to ignore the fact that the stretch of the Santa Clara River that runs through the city seems to be an arroyo-toad habitat, “without conducting a study or even bothering to look . . . That’s right, it‘s the same little croaker the city wants to protect, just down the road . . . where the city doesn’t want something built,” the newspaper said.

But the local environmentalists are reluctant to attack the city government this time around. “We just don‘t want to put the city into a vulnerable position” against Transit Mix Concrete, said Barbara Wampole, vice chair of the Friends of the Santa Clara River. “Even hypocrisy is an improvement [in their attitude].”

That attitude has been, for most of the city’s 18-year history, almost promiscuously pro-development, with the population nearing 200,000. Activist Teresa Savaikie waved from the tour-bus window at one recently riparian landscape, now gouged out for construction. “They‘re trying to make the place look like Afghanistan.”

The biggest development -- and fight -- is yet to come: the Newhall Ranch project, west of the city, where homes for 70,000 people are planned -- a local residential increase of more than 35 percent. Opponents say there simply isn’t enough water for the project, and Supervisor Antonovich has so far agreed with them.

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