The costs associated with the inadvertent discovery of Native American remains during a downtown Oak Harbor road project could approach $4 million.
And that doesn’t include the unknown expense of reburial, which could potentially be very costly.
The huge price tag associated with the discovery of the human remains has been a touchy political issue over the last couple of years, especially when it turned out that city officials ignored a warning from state experts.
Years before the project began, Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation officials alerted city officials that a known Native American site was nearby and there was a possibility cultural artifacts might be found under Pioneer Way.
Scott Dudley, then a councilman, criticized the former administration’s handling of the project in his campaign for mayor and won.
Today, Mayor Dudley is still sore about the subject.
“It was a very costly mistake and no one has ever taken responsibility,” he said. “It’s the citizen’s money. It’s the ratepayer’s money.”
Yet the question of whether the city’s disregard for the state archaeologists increased the costs of dealing with the bones is under debate. Former City Engineer Eric Johnston has argued in the past that the cost would have been about the same, whether or not the city was prepared ahead of time.
“It’s absolutely clear,” he said. “We could have saved the ratepayers a whole lot of money by listening to the experts.”
Joe Stowell, the current city engineer, said he simply doesn’t know. He said the remains were very shallow, so any roadwork likely would have disturbed them. Some sort of project was necessary in the area because of leaking pipes under the road.
“It’s a very difficult question to answer,” he said. “It would be complete speculation.”
Allyson Brooks, the state historic preservation officer, also said she wouldn’t speculate on the costs. But she said the city could have developed an archeology plan, with consultation with the Swinomish tribe, before the project started.
She said the plan likely would have saved the city a lot of time in the long run and prevented the distribution of the remains in fill piles across the city.
High costs of recovery
Stowell recently presented a City Council standing committee with a pie chart and spreadsheet showing both the actual and projected costs of the archeological work and associated items.
The city has spent $2.3 million so far on archeology, security, rental equipment and miscellaneous costs. He estimates that the rest of the work, which should be done by July at the latest, will cost from $869,000 to $1.6 million more.
In the worst case, the work will pencil out to $3.9 million, bringing the total cost of the Pioneer Way project to $10.26 million. The project to convert the road to a one-way thoroughfare was budgeted to cost $8.35 million.
City Administrator Larry Cort sent out an email to council members this week, detailing the costs. He pointed out that the price tag associated with the discovery of the remains puts the street project well above budget and that the options are limited for dealing with the expense. He proposed that the council discuss the issue with members of staff at the Feb. 9 retreat.
He pointed out that the cost projections don’t include the costs of reburial, which the mayor warned could be extremely costly.
Troublesome road project
The downtown road construction project was controversial to begin with as some downtown merchants were opposed to the idea of transforming SE Pioneer Way into a one-way road, though it would allow for angle-in parking and wide sidewalks.
Then the project came to a halt when construction workers unearthed human remains in June of 2011. The discovery delayed a stretch of the projects for months as archeologists studied the site and worked with tribes to decide how to deal with the remains.
The costs skyrocketed as officials realized that dirt excavated from the road had been dumped at a site on Pit Road, three other private properties and a city-owned property. The city hired an archeology firm and workers from the Swinomish tribe to sift through the soil in search of cultural artifacts.
The archeological work on Pioneer Way was completed more than a year ago. Stowell said the work at the private properties is also complete and he expects the work on Pit Road to be done in another month. That leaves only the city-owned site to complete.
Stowell said about 10 archeologists and 15 tribal members are working at the Pit Road site five days a week. The piles of soil brought in from Pioneer Way turned out to be a lot larger than the original estimate. The officials originally thought that 3,000 cubic yard of material would need to be processed, but it turned out to be about 5,200 cubic yards.
“We didn’t start out with a good idea of where the bottom of the piles were,” Stowell said. “The volume is a bit more than I thought it would be.”
Still, he said the Pit Road project is on time and within costs estimates.