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Army Will Comb Park for Bombs

With explosives found in a Rancho Santa Margarita site that was once a Navy range, the Corps of Engineers moves up its timetable to search the area.

October 03, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The Army Corps of Engineers will begin searching Rancho Santa Margarita's O'Neill Regional Park for remaining military explosives within 90 days, Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) announced Thursday.

The sweep for unexploded ordnance at the one-time bombing range had been scheduled for 2023 but was quickly advanced with the discovery last week of 11 bombs uncovered by workers building an asphalt bike path through the park.

Over a 28-hour period, workers found the 11 military bombs in three groups within 100 yards of each other. One bomb in each group was live and was detonated by the Orange County sheriff's bomb squad.

The park is within the Plano Trabuco bombing range, used by Navy pilots from the former El Toro base from 1944 to 1956.

After maintenance crews uncovered several half-century-old bombs last year near the 241 toll road, Miller began lobbying the corps to speed up clearing the ordnance from the Rancho Santa Margarita area, which is in his district.

Miller said last week's discoveries added urgency to the task.

"We moved it up 20 years," Miller said from Washington, D.C. "I'd say that's pretty good."

"We explained the situation and the importance of this issue, and the Army Corps listened," he said.

Miller said corps officials informed him Thursday morning that the bike path and a buffer zone around it will be the first area cleared. Soon after that, the remainder of the 1,800-acre wilderness park will be cleared.

The sweep was estimated by the government in 2001 to cost $2.7 million. Miller is unclear how much the park cleanup will now cost but said corps officials assured him that money is not an issue.

"Whatever funds are needed will be used," Miller said. "Money will be shifted around from other Army Corps projects."

Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Gary Thompson said he was elated.

"There are a lot of people who use those trails," he said. "Obviously there was a huge concern among folks that this was a pretty big danger."

Earlier this week, city, county, state and federal officials met to devise a strategy to remove the 8-inch-long practice bombs from the park. Orange County Supervisor Tom Wilson said he was prompted by the memory of what happened 20 years ago in San Diego, when two 8-year-olds were killed by a shell that exploded on a trail near Tierrasanta.

"We were looking into solutions that would have taken much longer than this," said Ken R. Smith, county director of public works. "I'm surprised the Army Corps acted this quickly."

Smith said he hoped the county could resume construction of the bike path soon.

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