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Oil And Gas Drilling Could Endanger U.S. Archaeological Sites


There's an oil and gas boom again in the United States. It's had environmental effects and even prompted social changes as neighborhoods learn to live amid fracking equipment - now the archaeological impact. In Pennsylvania, natural gas development has damaged or destroyed dozens of sites holding Native American or historical artifacts, artifacts that hold clues to thousands of years of human history. Reid Frazier of StateImpact Pennsylvania and The Allegheny Front reports.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: On her family's ridgetop in southwestern Pennsylvania, Karen LeBlanc recounts a discovery her uncle made here about 80 years ago.

KAREN LEBLANC: He was out exploring - actually plowing for corn in the field. And the plow struck the skull of the Indian bones. They dug it up. They saw what it was.

FRAZIER: It was a human skeleton, presumably Native American. Her uncle eventually reburied it. But LeBlanc is now worried that fracking nearby threatens the remains. The oil and gas company EQT is building a gas well on a neighbor's property. To keep enough water on hand to frack the wells, the company planned to build an impoundment or artificial pond right here near where the skeleton is buried. LeBlanc says that would be wrong.

LEBLANC: If this is your final resting place, why do we need to disturb you? You were there first. You have your right to remain there. They came after. They can move.

FRAZIER: LeBlanc's family leased their mineral rights to EQT. But they're fighting the placement of the pond, which would be right next to her 81-year-old mother's house. To press her argument, LeBlanc has enlisted help.

John Nass is an archaeologist at nearby California University of Pennsylvania. He's helping oversee a dig on the property, which has already unearthed an arrowhead, stone tools and ceramics.

JOHN NASS: This is what we call late prehistoric. So it dates - it postdates 1,000 A.D. The people who lived here - we don't know what they called themselves. Archaeologists called them the Monongahela tradition.

FRAZIER: After hearing LeBlanc's story about the skeleton, EQT says it halted construction and hired their own archaeologists to study the site. But even if EQT finds significant artifacts, nothing in state law prevents it from basically doing what it wants here, says Nass.

NASS: For private property, there's nothing we can really do about it even if it's recorded with the state. You could bulldoze it away if you wanted to.

FRAZIER: What's more, Pennsylvania grants exemptions from archaeological reviews for several types of permits, including the one EQT needed to build its holding pond. And any project under 10 acres in this state is also exempted. And the vast majority of well pads where fracking occurs are under 10 acres.

BEN FORD: In the case of drilling, if the drill site is 10 acres or less, in that instance, even known sites could very well be destroyed or affected.

FRAZIER: Ben Ford is an archaeology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In 2012, one of his students found at least 60 sites in the state had been damaged or destroyed by oil and gas development. These include burial mounds and villages likely to contain human remains. Around the country, the oil and gas boom is putting drilling rigs near historic villages and burial grounds but also in landscapes considered important to Native tribes. One recent example is the route of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which ran through waters sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux.

Hillary Hoffmann, a professor with Vermont Law School, says laws designed to protect these areas are weak or kick in too late in the planning process to keep development away from sensitive areas.

HILLARY HOFFMANN: There is no solid legal mechanism that will stop oil and gas development threatening cultural resources.

FRAZIER: The issue is bound to come up more as the Trump administration pushes for more drilling on public land. Hoffmann says one solution is to strengthen federal and state laws to give tribes, archaeologists and others more say in deciding how close is too close to drill. For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier
[Copyright 2024 The Allegheny Front]