Politics & Government

Preservationists critical of new road bill

ATLANTA -- Nothing visible marked a group of graves in south Bibb County when the state got ready to work on the Sardis Church Road extension several years ago, but there were stories of an old African-American burial ground there.

In 2008 ahead of the planned road project, archaeologists found the graves of about 100 people thought to be slaves or tenant farmers.

If there were no mandated archaeological reviews of road work sites, preservationists fear places like what's now called the Avondale Burial Place would never be known.

And they are nervous about a bill in the state Capitol that exempts road projects from the Georgia Environmental Policy Act if the job costs less than $100 million and doesn't get any federal money.

Today, that act requires study and reporting on a project's potential environmental impacts as well as its potential impact on historical or archaeological resources.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said his bill would put an end to paperwork, not to environmental review. Projects would still be subject to laws that protect the environment, cemeteries, endangered species, clean water and other natural resources, he said.

"All we're doing is saving on consulting fees and paperwork process to then expedite the project and put a shovel in the dirt and get these roads built," Beach said at a Thursday subcommittee hearing on his bill at the Capitol.

But archaeologists wonder what will happen without the Georgia Environmental Policy Act.

"As written, Senate Bill 346 eliminates the reporting process and offers no substitute," said Joseph Roberts, president of The Society for Georgia Archaeology.

"If the process is changed, due consideration of many social, cultural and ecological resources including archaeological ones, would be eliminated," Roberts testified at the hearing.

Jack Sammons, a professor emeritus at Mercer University's law school, opposes the bill as written. He was one of the leaders of Friends of the Old Fields, which fought a plan that would have driven the Fall Line Freeway through an area that's since been designated a federal Traditional Cultural Property for its historical significance to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

It's important to protect sites like that, he said, because they tell the story of a culture.

He said there are believed to be undiscovered mounds in Middle Georgia.

"Those could easily be bulldozed over. In fact, in the past, some of those have been," Sammons said. There are also sites from other cultures, like graveyards, that would be at risk, too, he said.

The historical survey requirement, Sammons said, makes road-builders have to stop and think.

When federal money is used in a road-building project, federal historical rules still would have to be followed, but not all road projects get federal money.

Meg Pirkle, the chief engineer at the Georgia Department of Transportation, said that if the bill becomes law, her department would write rules to speak to historical and archaeological resources.

"We would develop a policy in conjunction with our sister agency (the Department of Natural Resources) and make sure we are all in agreement on when things need to be surveyed, documented, mitigated," Pirkle told the House panel.

But state Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, proposed an amendment to the bill. That amendment would require the state to continue to follow the reporting law when it comes to historical or cultural resources.

The subcommittee approved the bill without her amendment, but the full House Transportation Committee will have the opportunity to consider that amendment when it hears the bill. The hearing has yet to be scheduled.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.