A federal historic preservation agency is questioning whether Orange County toll-road builders conducted enough research before demolishing a cave that some believe was an ancient Native American observatory.
The cave near Orange was demolished early last month by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, despite activists' claims that it was a significant site once used to mark the winter solstice.
Now, an official with the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation says road builders may have acted too hastily.
"We feel there were some real problems with how it was handled," said Claudia Nissley, director of the western review office of the council, a federal agency that comments on the historic implications of federal projects.
The transportation agency did not study the cave sufficiently, nor did it adequately consult with concerned Native Americans, Nissley said.
In fact, she said, her office had requested further study of the cave in a letter to the Federal Highway Administration dated Aug. 1, just one day before the demolition.
A spokeswoman for the transportation agency said officials there did not see the letter until the following week, when they received a copy from federal highway officials.
Toll-road officials defended their actions, saying that they studied the site thoroughly and had concluded it was not a religious cave.
"We coordinated with federal and local agencies to make sure we were doing this right," said Greg Henk, the transportation agency's executive vice president of design and construction.
The officials said they were advised in their studies by a Native American representative, and they followed all required guidelines. Henk questioned whether the council has "all the facts" about the cave.
The site lay in the path of the Eastern Transportation Corridor that will link the Riverside Freeway to Irvine.