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Bones halt Oak Harbor road work

Rick Fakkema of Oak Harbor Public Works patrols the area of SE Pioneer Way where the remains of Native Americans were unearthed. Following another discovery this week, the road project has been halted by state authorities but city employees still must take turns watching the locations to ensure they are not disturbed.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Rick Fakkema of Oak Harbor Public Works patrols the area of SE Pioneer Way where the remains of Native Americans were unearthed. Following another discovery this week, the road project has been halted by state authorities but city employees still must take turns watching the locations to ensure they are not disturbed.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor’s $8.35 million downtown improvement project ground to a halt this week following the discovery of more bones under SE Pioneer Way.

Additional human remains were unearthed Tuesday and city officials confirmed Friday morning that the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation had ordered nearly all construction activities on the road project to cease.

The city complied with the order immediately and informed its project contractor, Strider Construction, to shut down all operations. The delay is unfortunate, but Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik said there were no qualms about complying with the directive.

“We just want to do the right thing,” Slowik said. “We want to cooperate with the tribes and the state.”

The city learned of the shutdown through a letter the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation sent Thursday.

It said that all “excavation, filling, or placement of impervious surfaces along SE Pioneer Way must cease until an archaeological testing plan and permit application have been received, and an archaeological excavation permit issued by our agency.”

The single exception to the directive was that work on peripheral utility trenching could continue on Dock Street between Pioneer Way and Bayshore Drive.

The additional bones were discovered at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday by a construction worker who was excavating roadway just a few feet from the cordoned-off pit where the remains of a least three Native Americans were unearthed June 16.

Larry Cort, a project manager for the SE Pioneer Way improvement project, said the city’s newly hired archaeologist was monitoring the work when she noticed the bones and called an immediate halt to excavation.

Oak Harbor police were once again informed of the discovery, along with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

Although he couldn’t be sure, Cort said this find appeared to contain fewer bones than the first site, which is located between Mike’s Mini Mart and the stairs that lead down to Mi Pueblo on Bayshore Drive.

“In terms of what was visible, it was a smaller number of fragments,” Cort said.

Although work on the one-way street project had been ongoing since the initial discovery, it was east and west of the find site. Tuesday was the first attempt by construction workers to pick up where they left off.

“A 15-foot square was about as far as they got,” Cort said.

State Historic Preservation Officer Allyson Brooks, who is also the director of the historic preservation office, visited the new find Wednesday with two other archaeologists. Several people, representing five Western Washington tribes, were also present.

Brooks would not go into details about the new find, but did confirm that the bones are Native American and that the proximity of the two sites is telling.

“Clearly these were not isolated human remains,” Brooks said.

However, she declined to say whether it was evidence of a larger burial ground. Speculation prior to the establishment of hard fact, she said, was just plain “bad science.” But, getting answers to those questions is the primary reason why construction has been halted.

After the initial discovery, the city hired Seattle-based Northwest Archaeological Associates to have an expert onsite during excavation.  The Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation is tasking the specialist with developing the archaeological testing plan, though it must be approved by the state agency and the tribes before work can begin.

Brooks said she’s unsure how long the process will take but that the hope is to have the plan submitted for review as soon as next week. State officials and the tribes have agreed to make this a top priority, she said.

“All I can tell you is everyone is working as quickly as possible,” Brooks said.

Slowik said he hopes that construction can resume soon, as the project has put considerable hardship on downtown businesses. Thankfully, the project was ahead of schedule when the bones were found, he said.

However, while everyone is working towards a speedy resolution, Slowik said the city’s immediate focus is to ensure this sensitive matter is addressed appropriately.

“Our priority right now is to handle the remains with as much respect as possible and cooperate with the tribes to ensure their wishes are met,” Slowik said.

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