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Los Alamos National Laboratory is asking residents to refrain from outdoor activities in the Ancho Canyon area until further notice.
Sunday morning a hiker in Ancho Canyon came across two old mortar shells, picked them up and began carrying them out of the canyon before calling police about 4 p.m. Saturday, Los Alamos Police Lt. Scott Mills said during an interview Tuesday.
Mills is on the county’s bomb squad and investigated the report.
A laboratory spokesman said the ordnance was tested by laboratory specialists Tuesday.
“A hazardous devices team used 6-gram shaped charges to punch holes in the shells and determined they were inert or empty,” said Kevin Roark of the communications office. “No high explosives were involved. Most likely they were practice rounds, containing no high explosives.”
The incident triggered precautionary warnings by both the lab and the police.
“Even to a trained eye, it is difficult to tell if these shells are inert or alive,” Roark said. “So we are reminding residents not to pick these things up if these see them, but to immediately leave the area and inform the LAPD or the laboratory management as soon as they get to a safe distance.”
Asked what was a safe distance, Roark said, “Far away.”
He said a former Marine told him that if anybody were near an 81 mm shell when it goes off, “There wouldn’t be much left of you.”
The finding was a reminder that residents are still coming across old ordnance related to the laboratory.
“According to the serial numbers on the two items, they are from the mid-1950s,” Roark said.
"We can't emphasize enough the importance of not touching these types of items," he said.
Anyone who finds an explosive device should back away and call police immediately, Mills said, and the police will dispatch the bomb squad to the scene.
“While it was ultimately determined that these mortars were practice rounds, there’s always a chance they could have exploded,” Mills said. “They were found in an area where live rounds may have been used. Even highly trained bomb technicians and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians can't determine whether a device is active until they’ve completed their ‘render safe’ procedures.”
Ancho Canyon should be considered off limits until further notice, while the hazardous devices and emergency managers conduct a sweep of the area to make sure there isn’t any other ordnance out there.
Roark said there have been a couple of sighting each year of old unexploded ordnance around Los Alamos.
“It’s become pretty rare to find anything even semi-intact,” he said. “But obviously, it happens and people should use extreme caution.”