Wednesday, July 21, 2021
‘FREE DIRT’: The Washington State Department of Transportation is putting the finishing touches on a $31.3 million stream restoration project to improve salmon passage along 2.7 miles of Padden Creek between Padden Lake and Bellingham Bay. The City of Bellingham, meanwhile, has permitted a housing development downstream that serves both as injury to the goals of that project and insult to the very culture of the Salmon People.
Millions of dollars have been spent on the Padden Creek restoration, where fish monitoring studies indicate Chinook, chum, and coho salmon spawn.
Yet excavation has begun on a townhome housing project along an ecologically sensitive stretch close to Padden Creek, tearing into the stream bank and perhaps into a known and registered cultural archaeological site—an ancient tribal village and burial ground that could be up to 3,000 years old.
The site, designated 45WH4, was first catalogued in 1973 after Western Washington University researchers discovered a finger bone and spearhead fragments. Subsequent studies of the shell midden site have uncovered additional projectile points and burial goods, including a labret—a decorative stone or shell that is inserted into the lip or teeth—a clue to the extreme age of the burial site. The importance of the site has been stressed in numerous studies, commenting on age and importance. The City of Bellingham as recently as 2011 issued its own report on the cultural significance of the site in that vicinity.
Now it is backhoe rubbish.
The townhome project was permitted with minimal setbacks from the creek and without a comprehensive environmental review, or SEPA, under the city’s spurious reasoning that a review was not required as the site was originally considered unbuildable. When completed, the structures will tower on a potentially unstable slope close to the creek and crimp an important wildlife corridor. Even more astonishing, excavation work is apparently proceeding in this known cultural site without a trained archaeologist present.
The lessons of this folly are not ancient or remote.
“A former city official from Oak Harbor associated with the disturbance of a known burial site in 2011 is again associated with the disregard for archaeological protocols, this time in Fairhaven,” anthropologists from WWU commented, declaring the excavation a costly and embarrassing failure in cultural resource management by city officials.
“Unbelievably, Oak Harbor city officials ignored the instructions from the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and then, once the remains were unearthed, are reported to have lied to the public, claiming surprise and stating they had no prior knowledge that a Native American site was close to the project.”
The officials in charge of the Oak Harbor highway project offered the excavated soil, filled with bones and grave goods, as “free dirt.”
Eleven tribes were eventually notified of the find. Several were enraged and threatened a lawsuit.
In 2013, the Swinomish Tribal Community did file a class-action lawsuit against the City of Oak Harbor, charging that the city knew or should have known tribal ancestral remains would be uncovered through excavation.
Archaeologists recovered more than 4,300 human bones or bone fragments, nearly 17,000 non-human bone fragments and more than 44,000 “pre-contact or historic artifacts or artifact fragments,” according to a declaration by Brian Cladoosby, then chairman of the tribe.
The “free dirt” settlement ultimately cost Oak Harbor millions of dollars, according to media reports.
The engineer in charge of the highway project, Eric Johnston, was released by the City of Oak Harbor after Johnston settled his own lawsuit with the city for $20,000. Among charges the city laid against Johnston, he was intemperate in his remarks with members of the tribal community. He was immediately snapped up by the City of Bellingham, where in 2020 he was named director of Public Works—the department in charge of overseeing the Padden Creek excavation.
“This decision makes him vulnerable to criticism, considering his history, and would put the City of Bellingham at financial risk if ancestral Coast Salish remains are discovered,” WWU anthropologists commented. “However, if human remains were discovered at the site, it is probable no one would know because there is no archaeologist on site as an observer. At the very least, this makes the city’s approval process look regressive.”
Oak Harbor learned from their mistakes and hired a staff archaeologist to “incorporate archaeological sites and resources protection” into zoning regulations. These were among recommendations issued by the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation before the Oak Harbor project had even begun.
“We understand that we are human,” the city’s mayor commented to the Whidbey News-Times shortly after settlement. “From now on, when we do make mistakes: A. We admit the fact. B. We apologize. C. We try to figure out how we don’t do it again.”
With the announced retirement of Bellingham Planning Director Rick Sepler and the departure of senior planners comes a moment of reckoning and repositioning for the City of Bellingham. A rush to produce high-density affordable housing has not improved affordability one jot and has come at considerable cost to classic established neighborhoods and quality of life. It’s time to pair and integrate one set of imperatives with other imperatives, and bring them all in union with our core values.
Our cultural heritage demands it.