Tribe's concerns weigh on planned dredge project
Oak Bluffs is prepared to spend $24,900 on an underwater archaeological survey, if that is what it takes to satisfy the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head's (Aquinnah) historical concerns, before the short permitting window closes on a much needed dredging project of Sengekontacket Pond.
The U.S. Army Corps is the lead federal permitting agency for dredging projects. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, the Corps is required to consult with federally recognized tribes and work to avoid, minimize, and mitigate any effects on either historically or culturally significant resources.
That requirement gives the tribe some influence over the project. If the tribe questions such a project, the Army Corps must evaluate the tribe's concerns before it can issue a permit. Outright objections could stall or derail a project.
In a telephone call Monday, Duncan Ross, Oak Bluffs selectman and chairman of the joint Edgartown-Oak Bluffs committee on Sengekontacket, said that as far as he knows, the tribe has not described any concerns or raised any formal objections to the Oak Bluffs dredging project in writing, either to Oak Bluffs officials or the Army Corps. But the possibility that the tribe might object has been enough to generate a preemptive effort on the part of Oak Bluffs.
The $500,000 project involves using the Edgartown dredge to remove 57,000 cubic yards of sand from the channel between Big and Little bridges.
Sengekontacket Pond was closed to shellfishing over the past two summers, because of elevated levels of coliform bacteria. The purpose of deepening the channel is to increase water circulation and improve shellfish habitat in the popular saltwater pond.
"From where I am sitting, it looks to me that this is the way to get the dredging done, and that is what I am trying to do - get the dredging done to help save the pond," Mr. Ross said. "That is my number one priority."
Town selectmen have agreed to contract for a survey, based on an agreement that grew out of private conversations between Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden and Bettina Washington, Wampanoag historic preservation officer.
Mr. Ross said that Ms. Washington told Mr. Grunden the tribe wanted a survey as a condition of signing off on the project.
In return, Mr. Ross said that selectmen directed Mr. Grunden to ask the tribe to send a letter to the Army Corps describing the agreement with the town and declaring that its concerns would be satisfied by the planned survey.
Selectmen have not participated in the discussions or asked to speak with any other tribe officials, including tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Mr. Ross said. He added that he assumed Ms. Washington had the authority to speak for the tribe and that this appeared to be the best way to keep the project moving.
A survey has not yet been required by the Corps, and Mr. Ross said the town would not spend $24,900 on one until the Army Corps of Engineers instructs the town to do so, as a condition of the permit.
Items dredged up
The tribe's interest and possible concerns about the project surfaced in a conversation between Ms. Adams and Ms. Washington last summer.
Ms. Washington told Ms. Adams that during an Edgartown dredging project, members of the Tribe had noticed that there were pieces of timber that had come up in the dredge material and landed on the nearby beach where the dredge spoil was dumped. The site of this dredging work was in the part of the pond within Edgartown's borders, east of the channel to be dredged by Oak Bluffs in its portion of the shared pond.
In her conversation with Ms. Adams, Ms. Washington said that if future dredging were to take place, the tribe would have an interest.
Mr. Ross said the "pieces of timber" turned up in the Edgartown dredging were initially referred to as possible pieces of an old fishing weir. They have not been examined by the selectman.
Mr. Grunden told The Times that Ms. Washington described three specific pieces, one a piece of wood honed by tools, also fire-cracked rocks that might have been used as part of a cooking fire, and finally a point that might be an arrowhead.
No one at the town level has asked for authentication of the items found during the earlier project, or documentation that they are important to historical or anthropological research.
"I took the tribal experts at their word," Mr. Grunden said. "I've worked with them many times before."
Mr. Grunden said he is willing to proceed on the tribe's analysis. He said the actual items are unimportant, in terms of the law and the permitting process that requires consultations with native American tribes.
Ms. Washington did not respond to repeated requests from The Times for an interview. The Times tried five separate times, over the course of three weeks, to reach her by phone and email.
Mr. Grunden said the town is addressing the tribe's concerns. "The Tribe will be sending a letter that will go in the Army Corps permit," he said. "We have what we think is a workable compromise."
Terms of the survey contract
The agreement calls for the town to conduct an underwater survey of the area to be dredged, before the project begins, and after it is finished.
"We need to go through and ensure that we're not taking out any historical artifacts, significant artifacts," Mr. Grunden said. "It's not only the tribal history, it's the history of the Island we want to protect. That's an important and wonderful thing to do."
Last week, Fathom Research of New Bedford submitted a $24,900 contract proposal to Oak Bluffs under whose terms the company would consult with the town, the tribe, and various permitting agencies and provide an underwater visual assessment of the 100-foot wide,1.1 mile long project area.
A marine archaeologist with experience in submerged settlements archaeology would be towed lengthwise along the channel on five imaginary lines spaced 20 feet apart. The diver will document the sandy bottom with a high resolution video camera attached to his face mask. Fathom Research will conduct the same survey after the dredge has removed the sand.
All movements will be precisely recorded, so that "any submerged cultural resources or archaeologically sensitive areas are identified during the course of the field assessment...in case these resources are subsequently recommended for avoidance or need to be relocated for additional investigation," the contract provides.
The survey area includes a channel that has been dredged at least twice before, but fills in over time with sand washed in from Nantucket Sound.
Ultimately, it will be the Army Corps of Engineers that decides what Oak Bluffs must do to protect possible historical sites. On October 20, the Army Corps issued notice of the Sengekontacket project, which begins a 30-day comment period. Anyone who objects to the project or has concerns may alert the Army Corps during the comment period. Following the 30-day period, the Army Corps will review the public comments, and barring any serious objections, could issue the dredging permit about a week after the public comment closes on November 20.
Wide latitude for tribes
In an earlier interview, Ms. Adams said the Army Corps gives wide latitude to Native American tribes. She said when decisions involve historic structures, it is a little clearer.
"When it comes to the culturally historic properties of a tribe that becomes a little more difficult," Ms. Adams said. "We do not have any real good definition for those things, so we do have to consult on a case-by-case basis and try to understand what it is that is of significance to them and how we can avoid and minimize those impacts."
In a later conversation with The Times, Ms. Adams said the federal agency must have some documentation before it requires mitigation as a condition of the permit. "Not necessarily artifacts," Ms. Adams said. "But there has to be something specific enough for us to know what could be dredged up. It would need to be enough detail for us to believe that there is likely to be something there. Then we would specify what further study needs to be done."
Town administrator Michael Dutton said the town will rely on the Army Corps to judge whether the items found in the earlier dredging are authentic and historic. The town fully expects the Army Corps to require a study.
"We are ready to go on that," Mr. Dutton said. "We will not sign a contract until we are sure it will be incorporated into the permit. At this point, it boils down to what the Army Corps is going to require. We're not going to go out and spend public money to do something we're not required to do. We're perfectly prepared to spend the money we need to spend, if the Army Corps feels it rises to the level of a survey."
Mr. Dutton is responsible for signing off on any expenditure related to the dredging project. He said the cost of the underwater survey will not come from the town's operating budget, but must come from the money voters authorized for dredging.
In April, annual town meeting voters approved an article to borrow $500,000 to dredge the channel between Big Bridge and Little Bridge. The vote was a measure of the importance Oak Bluffs citizens place on Sengekontacket Pond. It followed a bruising debate over the town budget, which eliminated large chunks of spending from nearly every town department.
Dredging the channel should improve circulation of water through the salt pond. In turn, improved circulation is expected to improve water quality, by flushing out bacteria and other contaminants.
In July of 2007, following water sampling that showed high bacteria counts, the state Division of Marine Fisheries declared Sengekontacket Pond a "conditionally approved area." The pond was closed to shellfishing in the summer months, and has been ever since. It has been open to shellfishing in the fall and winter months. This year, for the first time, bacterial levels were too high on October 1, the day the pond was opened for shellfishing. It was closed the same day, and reopened about a week later. The bacteria measurements indicate water quality in Sengekontacket Pond is getting worse.
Once the money was in place for the dredging project, the town began the complex process of getting local, state, and federal permits to start the dredging. Town officials hoped to begin the dredging in late September, but the permit process to get approval from the Army Corps dragged out well into the fall. That leaves a very narrow window to dredge the channel. Dredging cannot continue past January 15, because it would disturb fish breeding habitat. Oak Bluffs also hoped to rent Edgartown's town-owned dredging barge. That dredge has limited availability, however, because it is scheduled for several other projects.
All the variables put Oak Bluffs in a tough spot. If the dredging does not get started in time, the project would have to be postponed until next fall. Though none will say it publically, several officials indicate privately that they have not expressed stronger opposition to the archaeological survey because they are eager to get the project done this year, and the tribe has the ability to hold up the project.
At this point, even a slight delay could put the project on hold until next fall. "If we can get the final Army Corps permit," Mr. Dutton said, "and if the stars all line up, we should be able to do a good chunk of the project this winter. Worse case scenario is, we have to do it over two seasons. If things go well, right around Thanksgiving we should be able to go."