Construction crews preparing for the launch of a high-speed passenger train service from Miami to Orlando haphazardly dug up and damaged prehistoric artifacts in an archaeologically sensitive area of South Florida, according to a well-known archaeologist.
Bob Carr, executive director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, says workers installing fiber-optic cables in a trench for All Aboard Florida tore into protected soil where the Florida East Coast railway meets the Little River canal, spitting up long-buried conch shells and rudimentary axes forged by the Tequesta tribe. The work — performed a few hundred feet from a protected landmark where Tequesta remains are buried in a mound — appears to have been done without a special city of Miami approval.
“This is a real problem,” Carr said. “This is not just some simple misstep.”
Carr says he was shocked three weeks ago while driving down Northeast 82nd Street from a friend’s house in Miami Beach to see construction machinery excavating on the river banks. He said he tried to convince All Aboard Florida to pause the work until the proper precautions and permits were in place.
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But crews appear to have finished digging on the site, and All Aboard Florida is pushing forward with plans to open its Miami-to-West Palm Beach line by 2017. Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a final environmental report dismissing any serious environmental and historical consequences of dramatically expanding the use of the FEC tracks and beefing up the railway. A previous report included assurances that work wouldn’t be disruptive in protected archaeological sites, including Little River.
“We have the proper permissions for our work, and we take all of our procedural obligations very seriously,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We reached out to the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy to understand its view, and we're also working closely with the City of Miami's historic preservation team on a monitoring plan.”
But Carr — who is reviewing aspects of the project in the Treasure Coast for two counties intensely opposed to All Aboard Florida — says there is reason now to doubt the accuracy of the environmental report. He said plowing roughshod into archaeological zones not only damages artifacts, but destroys the ability to learn about the Tequesta, who lived in Southeast Florida hundreds of years ago before dying off in the mid-18th century.
Carr, Miami-Dade County’s former archaeologist, has excavated other ancient Tequesta villages on the Miami River, including the famed Miami Circle. By simply scanning the surface near the railroad, he and several other archaeologists say they have found about 100 pieces of pottery, shells, animal bones and other long-buried artifacts.
“They’re contending in those assessment reports that they’re having no impact on these archaeological sites. And that’s just not true,” Carr said.
All Aboard Florida and city of Miami administrators say the company is already working with an archaeological consultant, and they’re reviewing all the approvals and research that went into the work in Little River. Megan Schmitt, Miami’s preservation officer, said the city does require certificates to dig in archaeological conservation areas, such as the Little River, but the city isn’t pointing any fingers.
“I don’t believe they failed to comply with any of their obligations,” Schmitt said.
For now, that appears to be enough for the Federal Railroad Administration, which noted in a statement that All Aboard Florida is working with local governments and a consultant. But it’s possible that by publicizing the issue in Little River, Carr could create complications for the intercity train system.
Carr says his concerns in South Florida aren’t generated by his clients in Indian River and Martin counties, where All Aboard Florida is highly controversial. Rather, he said, it’s important to protect an important area where knowledge about the Tequesta is lacking.
“We don’t really know precisely what’s here,” he said. “That’s another good reason not to destroy it willy-nilly.”