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Clear Bombing Range, Now

November 24, 2002

Uncle Sam says he can't fund the promised $2.7-million cleanup of a former bombing range in south Orange County until 2023. What makes the situation amazing is that the 1,812-acre range closed down three years after the Korean War -- so nearly 70 years will pass before the government completes its obligation to find and dispose of leftover bombs and rockets.

And some folks wonder why skeptics don't believe the Defense Department's recent promise to clean up the toxic soup left behind at the former El Toro Marine base, which landed on the federal Superfund list as one of the nation's most polluted sites.

Target practice at the Trabuco Bombing Range ended in 1956. The former range extends from residential tracts in Rancho Santa Margarita to the backlands of O'Neill Regional Park. About 70 tons of bombs and rockets were carted away as the city was being built, but an unknown quantity of potentially dangerous ordnance remains in the soil underneath parklands where visitors hike, mountain bike and picnic.

There's no record of injuries being caused by unexploded bombs and rockets that Navy pilots dropped during training flights, but dozens of civilian casualties have been recorded at other sites with unexploded ordnance--including the highly publicized deaths in 1983 of two San Diego boys who stumbled across a live mortar shell near a residential community.

The bombing range is caught up in a federal government numbers game. It is one of 9,000 of what the government refers to as "formerly used defense sites" scattered across the country. The estimated tab for cleaning up after the military is $19 billion, but annual spending on cleanup has averaged just $220 million. Absent a dramatic and improbable hike in spending, the cleanup won't be finished for about a century.

Federal officials say the danger at the old Trabuco range is reduced by the fact that rockets and bombs usually carried just enough explosives to create a puff of smoke that allowed pilots to track where bombs and rockets landed. But residents in other parts of the country haven't been as lucky.

Bomblets containing sarin nerve gas were found in a national wildlife refuge near Denver, and unexploded mortar shells filled with an exploding gas were unearthed just 2,100 feet from a Massachusetts elementary school.

City construction workers find one or two bombs or rockets each year at the Trabuco range. The county's bomb squad disposes of the ordnance. Rangers at O'Neill Regional Park last uncovered a practice weapon about two decades ago, but visitors are warned not to walk off paths to explore the wilderness.

That's not good enough.

The Defense Department should fulfill its obligation. It's bad enough when unexploded ordnance rusts away in the middle of the desert. It's simply not acceptable when bombs and rockets remain buried for decades inside a city's limits or in a heavily used regional park.

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