History lost to gas drilling

Farmer Mike Kotz of Claysville, Pa., works to shield Indian sites from drilling damage.
Farmer Mike Kotz of Claysville, Pa., works to shield Indian sites from drilling damage. (LAKE FONG / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Amid shale boom, Pa. law offers little protection to archaeological sites.

Posted: May 09, 2011

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 hands of invaders who sacked it, massacred its inhabitants, and burned houses and food stores, said William C. Johnson, an adviser to the project.

But when Johnson returned last year to the dig, called the Kirshner site, he was stunned.

"There is a drill rig and catchment basin sitting on half the village," said Johnson, who earned a doctorate 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 damaged or destroyed by natural gas drilling, and those who have turned to state officials seeking help in preserving them have found that Pennsylvania 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 that state law requires it to pay for.

Mike Kotz, a Washington County vegetable grower with an interest in the artifacts he has encountered in his work, has sought to protect sites of proven or potential value from destruction by natural gas operations.

The rapid growth of Marcellus Shale drilling has brought a big increase in road building, drilling-site work, construction of compressor stations, pipeline laying, and other activities associated with extracting natural gas from the vast rock formation, which underlies much of Pennsylvania.

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

A construction site must be 10 acres or larger before the state History Code, or Title 37, takes effect. Smaller sites are exempt and are subject to no state oversight. Drill pads for Marcellus Shale sites are often less than 10 acres.

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

That legislation gave the commission new responsibilities with no added funding. So it lacks sufficient resources to do any field operations, commission spokesman Howard Pollman said. Its role nowadays is issuing recommendations, he said.

"We can't force anyone to do anything," Pollman said. "We only give opinions."

The Department of Environmental Protection alerts the Historical and Museum Commission to do a site assessment for cultural resources, but does not base its permitting decisions on the findings. Other state agencies are not required to seek the commission's advice 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 Espino, who also is 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," said Espino, who added that conventional gas-well drilling already had damaged historic sites.

Kotz said he remained determined to protect a site on land he previously leased north of Claysville, Washington County. He recovered artifacts that a Historical and Museum Commission archaeologist said date from 7500 B.C. to A.D. 1500.

The half-acre - now owned by the state Game Commission - produced as many as 400 Native American points, often called arrowheads; hundreds of pounds of hammer, grinding, and nutting stones; and grinding surfaces and other artifacts. A historical commission official has identified the point types in Kotz's collection and the probable ages of the artifacts. He encouraged Kotz to donate the collection to the State Museum in Harrisburg.

The site is listed on state archaeological survey maps, which are available only to archaeologists to prevent looting. But being on the list doesn't protect properties from damage or destruction during gas-well operations.

Some Pennsylvania sites have more protection: Projects involving streams or waterways, or federal property, come under federal rules, which can require companies to do archaeological surveys and fieldwork before projects may proceed.

A pipeline project by Mark West Liberty Midstream & Resources LLC north of Claysville that Kotz believes is compromising archaeological resources was subject to the stricter federal code. Robert McHale, manager of environmental regulatory affairs for Mark West, said his company was aware of its obligation to preserve cultural resources and avoided such sites as a matter of good business.

Under the federal code, a company is required to notify the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if it encounters archaeological finds. To prevent such delays, 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 prescreen than to wait until the last minute and get a surprise," McHale said.

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

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

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