(PA) State's Laws Offer Little Shale Drilling Protection to Archaeological Sites

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
8 May 2011
By David Templeton

An excavation at a Westmoreland County site once occupied by Monongahela Indians produced abundant evidence of two villages and allowed researchers to piece together the violent end of the later settlement at the hand of invaders who sacked it, massacred its inhabitants and burnt houses and food stores, said William C. Johnson, who served as an adviser to the project.

But when Mr. Johnson returned to the dig site last year he was stunned by what he found.

"There is a drill rig and catchment basin sitting on half the village," said Mr. Johnson, who received a doctoral degree from the University of Pittsburgh and served as senior prehistoric archaeologist for Michael Baker Jr. Engineering Inc. "You have something there -- which is better than you get with [excavations of] other villages -- that has been destroyed by drilling."

The Kirshner site near West Newton is one of a number of sites to be damaged or destroyed by drilling, and those who have turned to state officials seeking help in preserving them have found that Pennsylvania's laws offer little or no protection for archaeological resources.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state agency that oversees historic sites including areas of archaeological value, has no power to compel investigation or preservation and no money to conduct field investigations of sites that state law mandates it pay for.

Mike Kotz, a Washington County vegetable grower with an interest in the artifacts he encountered in his agricultural work, has sought to protect sites of proven or potential value from destruction by natural gas operations. Many other types of construction and industrial activities can also damage cultural resources, but the rapid growth of Marcellus Shale drilling means a big increase in road building, drilling site work, construction of compressor stations, pipeline laying and other activities associated with work in the vast rock formation underlying much of Pennsylvania from which natural gas is extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"A bulldozer can destroy 9,000 years of history in 15 minutes," Mr. Kotz said.

A construction site must be 10 acres or larger before the state History Code, or Title 37, takes effect. Construction sites under 10 acres are exempted, meaning there is no state oversight whatsoever on these sites. Drill pads for Marcellus Shale sites are often under 10 acres.

But even for sites over 10 acres, legislation passed in 1995 requires the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, rather than the company or permit applicant, to pay for archaeological surveys or field work under a tight 120-day deadline.

The Act 70 amendment gave the historical and museum commission new responsibilities with no additional funding.

So the commission lacks sufficient resources to do any field operations, commission spokesman Howard Pollman said, noting its role nowadays involves issuing recommendations.

"We can't force anyone to do anything," he said. "We are only a consulting party. We only give opinions."

The Department of Environmental Protection alerts the historical and museum commission to do a site assessment for cultural resources if the site is 10 or more acres, but does not base its permitting decisions on the commission's findings. Other state agencies are not required to seek commission advice on projects or follow its recommendations.

Jason Espino, a graduate student in applied archaeology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is doing his master's thesis on gas drilling's impact on more than 3,000 designated historic sites in Washington County.

"People think archaeology is Egypt and Mexico, but we have archaeological richness here, and it's being destroyed by unchecked drilling for natural gas," said Mr. Espino, who is also president of the Allegheny County Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. "We do not want to stop development, but we also do not want to destroy the past. A healthy balance is what is proper here."

Mr. Espino said conventional gas-well drilling already has damaged the Heathville Flats site in Jefferson County and the Runaway Run and Fishbasket Forks sites in Armstrong County.

"It's shocking to see," he said. "This is a great example of unnecessary destruction of a significant site."

On the Kirshner site, nothing prevented a drilling company from setting up operations next to the site where Jay Babich, an amateur archaeologist and member of the Westmoreland Archaeological Society, as well as the Kirshner family who owned and lived at the site, had done excavations. Mr. Babich did most of the work to uncover the remains of overlapping villages that dated from 1190 and 1500 A.D. The Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit that acquires archaeological sites to preserve them, now owns part of the land where previous excavations had taken place.

The Monongahela Indian village extended onto the neighboring property where well drilling occurred.

Mr. Kotz, who created the Pennsylvania Simply Sweet Onion, said he remains determined to protect a site on land he previously leased north of Claysville, where he recovered artifacts that a historical commission archaeologist said range in date from 7500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.

The half-acre site, now owned by the state Game Commission, produced up to 400 Native American points, often called arrowheads, along with hundreds of pounds of hammer, grinding and nutting stones and grinding surfaces and other artifacts. In a letter to Mr. Kotz, Mark A. McConaughy, a historical commission official at the Bushy Run Battlefield in the Harrison City section of Penn Township, identified the point types in Mr. Kotz's collection and probable ages for the artifacts.

He also encouraged Mr. Kotz to donate the collection to the State Museum in Harrisburg.

The site now is listed on state archaeological survey maps (available only to archaeologists to prevent looting). But being on that list doesn't protect many properties from damage or destruction from gas-well operations active in the area.

Some Pennsylvania sites have more protection: Projects involving streams or waterways, or federal property, fall under the purview of the federal History Code, which can require companies to do archaeological surveys and field work before projects can proceed.

A Mark West Liberty Midstream & Resources LLC pipeline project north of Claysville that Mr. Kotz believes is compromising archaeological resources was subject to the stricter federal History Code. Robert McHale, manager of environmental regulatory affairs for Mark West, said his company not only is aware of its obligation to preserve cultural resources but avoids such sites as a matter of good business.

Under the federal code, the company was required to notify Army Corps of Engineers officials if it encountered archaeological finds. To prevent such delays, Mr. McHale said, an archaeologist under company contract checks whether proposed pipeline routes and project plans might disrupt any historic sites. If so, the company alters the routes to avoid them.

"It's better to pre-screen than to wait until the last minute and get a surprise," Mr. McHale said.

When artifacts were found at a Blaine Township site where Mark West had proposed to create a wetlands, the company was required to preserve those areas to comply with the federal History Code.

Mr. McHale and state officials met with Mr. Kotz in August 2009 to discuss historic preservation, and everything was amicable, he said. But Mr. Kotz said his suggestions were ignored.

Mark West built a compressor station in Blaine on a site designated as historic, but Mr. McHale said the location of the archaeological resources wasn't clear and findings were deemed to be minimal, so the company went ahead with the project.

"What's at stake?" Mr. Espino said. "The cultural heritage of the commonwealth is put in danger -- the campsites of the earliest Americans."

Sacred grounds, burial mounds and prehistoric villages are at risk, he said, along with archaeological evidence of how people made their livings, buried their dead, built homes, grew maize (corn) and hunted animals. French and Indian War sites and 18th-century domestic sites also could be jeopardized, he said.

Construction, strip mining and conventional natural gas drilling already have destroyed sites identified as significant in archaeological surveys, Mr. Espino said, but the Marcellus Shale boom with so many locations heightens the threat. Since 2005, Mr. Espino said, well drilling statewide has affected 57,000 acres, or about 91 square miles. He speaks on the topic to raise public awareness with hope of protecting sites.

The "pipe dream" solution, he said, is to repeal the Act 70 amendment to force drilling companies once again to do surveys and pay for preservation before projects begin, as the federal code requires. There are no such initiatives under way in the state Legislature.

Mr. Kotz continues contacting state and elected officials and environmentalists in hopes of preserving historic sites from drilling activity. His only option, he said, is to ask natural gas companies to shift drilling pads and pipelines to avoid destroying small but important historic sites.

"In my case, it is common sense, really," he said. "Put the pipeline over there, and not in a field where there is 9,000 years of history."