ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Mining a Lot of Questions

A rock quarry in Rancho Santa Margarita has operated without required permits for two years, and local authorities have notified its operators of at least 10 possible violations of county health, water and fire codes. But the Ortega Rock Quarry Inc. now has a plan before the county to triple the size of the mine and potentially tear up acres earmarked as future parkland.

How did it come to that?

Thomas B. Mathews, planning director for the county's Environmental Management Agency, wants to know what's going on, and well he should.

It's good that a team of investigators will tour the quarry next week in a bid to sort things out.

The Board of Supervisors eventually will have to rule on the expansion proposal. But while an environmental impact report is being prepared, the county should resolve to grant no more operating room until all questions are answered satisfactorily.

The quarry has applied to increase its operations from 40 to 126 acres in anticipation of becoming a supplier of rock and gravel for the county's proposed tollways.

And, of course, the tollways are a high-priority item for many of the county's political leaders. It's true also that the operator is reported to have corrected most of the code violations.

But county records show that the quarry has continued to operate a rock crusher without a permit, and it shuttles trucks in and out of a canyon on a road graded without a permit.

In fact, Floyd G. McLellan Jr., a county environmental manager, has called the operation in the future park "the most flagrant violator I've ever seen."

The larger point is that the property is within 2,225 acres promised to the county as parkland in 1983 in an agreement that allows the development of Rancho Santa Margarita.

The property is scheduled to become part of Caspers Park when the mining operation is eventually shut down.

The Board of Supervisors should go slow, insisting at the very least on carefully controlled expansion. Take care that a land scheduled to become a county park does not end up becoming more of a moonscape.

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