Dirty Work

Tired of engaging our toy soldiers in living-room battlefields, my childhood friend and I once dug a pit in my back yard. Of course, my mother later wished we hadn't, but we needed the pit to make mud for our Western Front re-creation-a 2-inch layer of mud slathered over some plywood from the garage. Factoring out the trenches, dugouts and shell holes we cut in the mud, I doubt we used more than a cubic foot of mud for the whole project.

County officials face a similar situation. Tired of playing with John Wayne Airport, where limited space and short runways keep commercial passenger and cargo operations to a minimum, they now want to go out and build a new airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

But to build an airport big enough to satisfy their needs-277,000 commercial operations, when we last checked-they need dirt. And according to the county's Facility Requirements technical report (first available in December 1998), they'll need plenty of it: roughly 5.9 million cubic yards.

The reason is simple: El Toro is fine for single-seat fighter jets and turbo-prop cargo planes, but it lacks the safety refinements commercial pilots and passengers flying in multiengine airliners demand. For instance, because of Loma Ridge and the other hills and mountains that lie to the north, south and east of the base, both sets of El Toro's runways run uphill at a 1.55 percent grade. It seems like nothing, but that grade requires planes rolling the length of the 10,000 foot north-south runways to climb the equivalent of a 10-story building.

Because that grade exceeds Federal Aviation Administration limits, the county-which has always boasted that the Marine base would become an international airport overnight-wants to flatten the runways. To do that, they intend to cut more than 4.4 million cubic yards of dirt from the base's higher northeastern and southeastern quadrants and fill 10.3 million cubic yards of dirt in the lower northwestern and southwestern quadrants. That imbalance leaves a dirt deficit of 5.9 million cubic yards.

That's a lot of dirt. The 29-acre Pentagon in Washington, D.C., contains a mere 435,000 cubic yards of concrete. Only 4.5 million cubic yards of concrete went into the monumental Hoover Dam-where construction killed 112 workers. Only Grand Coulee Dam, which spans the Columbia River, seems larger. Then again, the Grand Coulee's 10.5 million cubic yards of concrete makes it the largest dam in the world.

Getting that much dirt to the base will require more than 30,000 rail cars, which if linked in one train, would stretch 340 miles.

Exactly where the county intends to get the dirt remains a mystery. "Why don't they just scoop it off of Loma Ridge," said airport opponent and attorney Ron Steinbach, who once worked on earthwork calculations for a developer. Noting that a Marine troop transport once crashed into the ridge, Steinbach figures his proposal "would pretty much solve the airport's departure problems."

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