A federal law aimed at preventing looting of historic sites is keeping officials in upstate New York from finding out details about three spots along the route of a planned natural-gas pipeline that contain prehistoric artifacts.
Constitution Pipeline LLC, which plans to build a 124-mile pipeline from Pennsylvania’s shale fields to northeastern markets, has filed documents with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission describing three sites on its route through the Schoharie Valley west of Albany that have archaeological value.
Previous digs at construction sites and scientific excavations nearby have produced a wealth of arrowheads, stone tools, pottery shards and campfire remnants dating back as much as 5,000 years.
Schoharie County officials want to know exactly where the sites are so they can weigh in on proposed protective measures. But their attempts to get the information from FERC were rebuffed because of federal regulations designed to protect sites from looting. The county’s planning department filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which was denied, and now they’re appealing that decision.
“The county is saying we don’t want to advertise where sites are, but to make recommendations for mitigation efforts, we have to know the location of the sites,” said Shane Nickle, senior planner for the county.
Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for the pipeline company, said FERC regulations prohibit the company from disclosing sensitive cultural resource locations to third parties other than the federal agency and the State Historic Preservation Office.
Randy Simons, spokesman for the state office, said the office is reviewing the effect of the pipeline on historic resources and will make recommendations to preserve any artifacts that are unearthed. He said the state office isn’t allowed to release specific information to local officials.
An archaeologist who works in the region isn’t worried.
“The Schoharie Valley has a wealth of prehistoric occupation, with sites that go back at least 5,000 years to hunter-gatherer groups,” said Sean Rafferty, an archaeologist at the University at Albany who oversees a dig called the Pethick site that has unearthed more than 350,000 artifacts since 2004. He said he’s not concerned about the pipeline project.
“There is a legal process in place to protect historic resources, and it requires measures to minimize impact,” Rafferty said.
The pipeline has FERC approval contingent on receipt of a water quality certificate from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a Clean Water Act permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. A second pipeline, the 325-mile Northeast Energy Direct project proposed by Kinder Morgan, is in earlier stages of planning on a roughly parallel route.
Ted Shuart, Schoharie County’s historian, said Constitution’s maps show the route just misses the Pethick site, but he’s concerned it will damage an equally valuable site.
“The whole area is full of historic artifacts,” Shuart said.
Rather than destroying potentially significant sites, the pipeline project could reveal new ones, Rafferty said.
“There’s often a perception that archaeology and development projects are in conflict with each other,” Rafferty said. “I look at it as cooperative. Most sites are discovered because development is happening. The payoff comes with exploration paid for by the company.”