Critics say bill threatens historic sites with bulldozers

Georgia has more than 50,000 documented archaeological sites — and those are just the ones we know about.

With 13,000 years of human habitation in this state, traces of past lives are everywhere. And that’s the concern of cultural preservationists who say that legislation pending in the state House could threaten relics like slave cemeteries, Native American burial grounds, Civil War entrenchments and even standing historical buildings with bulldozers.

Senate Bill 346, introduced by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, is set for a vote in the House on Tuesday. It would let the Georgia Department of Transportation avoid complying with the reporting requirements of the Georgia Environmental Policy Act (GEPA) when building road and airport projects that cost less than $100 million. The law only applies if the projects are fully state-funded.

The bill has been a subject of contention for several weeks. An amended version that passed out of the House Transportation Committee last week addressed the main concern brought up by archaeologists. It added a requirement that an environmental evaluation be considered when a new road project could have adverse impact on historical site or cultural resource.

However, many archaeologists still have reservations. They say GEPA is already too weak — it allows the very agencies that are pursuing a project to make the determinations about whether it could damage a historic or cultural treasure. Changing the reporting requirements would add to the problem by creating a lack of documentation, transparency and public accountability.

“GEPA was put into place for a reason, for the protection of everybody in Georgia and their history and past and the cultural resources that are here for everybody,” said Dan Bigman, who is on the board of the Society for Georgia Archaeology and the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists. “So although we’ve made some progress on this bill, it still is not up to the standards that we would want.”

Archaeologists can check state records to see what other sites are in the area, walk the property, test a shovel-sized sample to see what is unearthed, or open larger excavation pits (a rarely needed step). If a site is already disturbed, or if it’s one of many similar sites, in all likelihood there would be no issue with allowing work to continue, Bigman said. However, archaeologists would at least want to document what was there.

GDOT employs archaeologists and they perform site evaluations. That process wouldn’t change under the proposed law.

However, if SB 346 passes, GDOT would not have to document their findings in a report unless the department determines the project could damage a historical or cultural site.

The existing law requires environmental evaluation reports to be sent to the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Divisions for review, and for the reports to be made publicly available for 45 days. The proposed measure would remove those accountability steps.

Beach, the bill sponsor, said his proposal doesn’t hurt the environment or threaten archaeological sites. He said GDOT can only bypass doing the report if a project already complies with numerous other environmental laws and standards. These include the Georgia Wildflower Preservation Act, the Georgia Endangered Wildlife Act, the Georgia Erosion and Sediment Act, the Clean Water Act, the Georgia Abandoned Cemetery and Burial Act and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Those existing laws protect a wide variety of plants, animals and habitats. However, they don’t shield historical or cultural sites. Those are only covered by GEPA.

Beach, a former member of the State Transportation Board, said his only aim is to eliminate unnecessary paperwork that takes months to complete and ties up state resources. GDOT has estimated that the cost savings would be $10,000 to $15,000 per project.

“The investigation does happen, you still have to go through all these processes,” Beach said. “You’re just not doing the paperwork if it comes back clean.”

Georgia’s environmental evaluation process for roads hasn’t really been an issue until recently. That’s because until recently, Georgia didn’t have enough money to bankroll road projects without tapping into federal aid. And all Georgia road projects backed by federal aid must be vetted through the more detailed federal environmental approval process.

However, thanks to a sweeping transportation funding bill that passed last year, Georgia now has more than $750 million additional dollars to spend on roads and bridges annually. When projects can be fully state funded, transportation planners only have to abide by Georgia's environmental screening process.

Kevin Jeselnik, staff attorney at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, praised lawmakers’ efforts to reach a compromise and said his organization would not seek to block the bill. However, he said “we still think it’s a bit of a rollback on existing protections.”

“We wouldn’t really like to see any rollbacks on GDOT’s requirements to report on the actual impacts of its projects,” Jeselnik said.

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