Archaeological sites in jeopardy

March 19, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

GOLD ROCK — If a proposed 80-mile stretch of the North Baja Pipeline is buried under east Imperial County, a wide swath of archaeological history will be destroyed.

History such as Indian pottery shards, tools left behind by turn-of-the-century miners and an intricate matrix of trails will be gone.

If not destroyed by a rumbling implement, artifacts will be sent to museums, some in San Bernardino County.

Near the Colorado River, the pipeline could be buried by construction crews charged with bulldozing through an undetermined number of prehistoric sites that could contain the fossils of Ice Age animals such as mammoths.


In the initial archaeological review of North Baja's construction plans, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission engineers identified 171 potentially historic sites within an 220-foot-wide corridor of Imperial County land from the border to Blythe where North Baja wants to build its pipeline. Of these 171, 99 were recommended for National Register of Historical Places evaluation.

To skinny down the 99, FERC decided it didn't think some were eligible for protection. Further winnowing the number, federal engineers forced North Baja to rejigger the pipeline's planned course some.

Some sites couldn't be worked around.

FERC recently decided 18 sites would be "adversely affected" by pipeline construction.

It sent a letter to North Baja and affected federal and California agencies asking for signatures confirming the finding and the proposed mitigation measures.

FERC staff archeologist Laurie Boros said those who received the letter should respond by this week.

That is "unbelievable," according to Terry Weiner, conservation coordinator for San Diego's Desert Protective Council.

Regarding the possibility of four agencies and the applicant signing off on the destruction of historic sites, Weiner said, "I don't think it's OK. It's far from being OK."

Months ago Weiner told FERC to choose the "no-action alternative" after reviewing the first environmental impact report for the pipeline. Basically, Weiner told FERC to shelve the project.

The federal commission, with a pro-energy mandate from President George Bush, didn't.

"After the presidential permit, people have thrown up their hands," Weiner said.

On Jan. 16, FERC issued a presidential permit that would allow North Baja to bury a pipeline from Blythe to the Mexican border to connect a Texas-Los Angeles pipeline with an under-construction pipeline that will run from Tijuana to Mexicali.

Imperial County officials, San Diego power plant experts and Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, have opposed construction of the pipeline because they think the natural gas it could carry would be burned by Mexicali power plants. Pollution from the plants could affect air quality here.

Filner and county officials asked FERC to reconsider its ruling.

On or before April 1, FERC will decide whether to reconsider.

While Weiner is concerned about pollution associated with the pipeline, she specifically called for "no action" because the desert area of east Imperial County has not been properly surveyed. No one knows exactly what rich sites could be harmed during construction, she said.

To mitigate loss, though, North Baja will have to pay archeologists to monitor the construction of the pipeline, taking samples before any pipeline is trenched and recording the historic trails on maps.

Weiner isn't impressed with that process.

"This is the way we lose our cultural heritage piece by piece. As with so many other facets of the environmental process associated with this project, it seems to be a piecemeal effort," Weiner said.

The way FERC staff archeologist Laurie Boros put it, "There are 18 eligible properties where some sort of data recovery will be required."

· Thirteen of the sites are prehistoric lithic scatters.

"Lithic scatters are simply surface-visible concentrations of stone (‘lithic') chips, flakes and tools. They usually mark the locations of prehistoric campsites and work areas," according to Bill Matthew's, north zone archaeologist for Sequoia National Forest.

All 13 of the sites contain some combination of features including trail/rail segments, rock features including alignments, circles and cairns, cleared circles/areas, ceramics (including pot drops) and milling features, according to federal engineers.

· Four of these sites contain historic components consisting of debris, refuse or rock features.

· Four sites contain no lithics and consisted of a prehistoric pot dump, a prehistoric site with trail segments and cleared areas; a dual component site with prehistorical trail segments, ceramic scatters, rock features and a historic cairn and a dual component site with prehistoric segments and ceramic scatters and historic rock features.

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