A controversial proposal for a massive gravel mine outside Santa Clarita cleared a major hurdle Monday when a federal judge rejected Los Angeles County's bid for a new traffic study for the project.
Some opponents of the mine -- which would extract 78 million tons of sand and gravel in Soledad Canyon -- now fear the decision by U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian may bring an end to their years-long battle over air pollution, traffic and other quality-of-life issues.
But officials in the city of Santa Clarita, who are leading the opposition, vowed to continue their fight against the mine, even if it were approved by the county.
"This fight is not over; it's just taking a different turn," said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz. She said the city had a strategy to fight the mine, but would not divulge what it was.
City officials were concerned when they learned that the county Board of Supervisors had agreed to settle some portions of a lawsuit brought against the county by Cemex, the Mexican company that would operate the mine. According to documents, the supervisors' vote, in a closed session in April, addressed the scope of the project.
The court records do not specify what those terms are, and the parties, including the supervisors, are bound by a gag order, and cannot discuss them.
On Monday, Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth said he hoped the settlement terms would be good news for the city, which would prefer the project be scaled back.
"For all we know, it could be everything we want," Smyth said.
The county and Cemex have been in third-party mediation sessions since February. They have sorted out many of their issues, but not the question about the traffic study, which they took to the judge Monday. Although the supervisors agreed to some conditions to settle the suit, other elements of the complaint remain.
Deborah J. Fox, an attorney for the county, argued that county officials were now duty-bound to include a new traffic study in a revised environmental report and circulate it to the public.
But Tevrizian sided with Cemex, saying a new environmental report would "reward the county for putting up all of these roadblocks" to the mine.
A Cemex attorney declined to comment on the judge's action Monday.
Several project opponents said they were afraid that after more than 15 public hearings -- some of them raucous affairs attended by hundreds of protesters -- a deal has been struck behind closed doors.
"We're very concerned that a back-room deal is short-circuiting the process. It really goes to show you that all the hearings were largely just a charade," said Peter Galvin, state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision to allow the mine despite its possible effects on an endangered fish, the unarmored three-spine stickleback.
Cemex's lawsuit contends that county officials engaged in "a pattern of interminable and unjustified project delays ... under the guise of environmental review."
The federal Bureau of Land Management granted Cemex the mineral rights to the property, then signed off on the environmental aspects of the mine in August 2000. But supervisors delayed a vote on the project in November 2001, after Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents north Los Angeles County, charged that its traffic studies were flawed.
The county Department of Public Works also determined that the study was inadequate, according to court records. Cemex sued the county two months later, and in February 2002, the supervisors rejected the plan outright.
Fox said the two parties would return to mediation but could not predict how long it might take. Any settlement proposal would require the supervisors' approval, she said.