Pre-historic human remains at a known cultural site in Klickitat County were unearthed by maintenance workers of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in late October. It was done in an area where Burlington Northern itself had financed a four-year study to identify cultural resources.
Harry Smiskin, chair of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, said it isn’t unusual for cultural artifacts to be discovered throughout Yakama territory, but it is unusual when an area that is known to have artifacts in it is disturbed.
Officials asked the Chronicle to not disclose the precise location of the site.
Darren Nichols, executive director with the Columbia River Gorge Commission, said because Burlington Northern financed the cultural resource study in Klickitat County in the 2000s “they had reason to know and should have known” about the site.
Gus Melonas, spokesman for Burlington Northern, was asked via email how the known site escaped notice of railroad maintenance crews, and he replied via email, “BNSF is investigating further, developing an ongoing security plan, and working closely with the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the Yakama Nation and associated agencies.”
While Smiskin said he didn’t know if the disturbance was done intentionally, “Obviously from the Yakama Nation’s perspective we don’t feel procedures have been followed correctly. If they had been this would never have occurred.”
He said to his knowledge the remains — which they have reason to believe are from more than one person — have not been reburied yet. “When that happens it will be done by members of Yakama Nation and our staff.”
Melonas said maintenance crews “were smoothing up an access road adjacent to our mainline operation” as part of routine maintenance in the railroad’s right of way.
He said “part of the area that we graded, there was human remains discovered. We take this matter extremely seriously. We shut down work immediately when this situation occurred. We have blocked off the area. We have security ensuring the area is not further disturbed.”
The first notification of the disturbance came from the man who owns the property where the maintenance work was done. The railroad has an easement to be on the man’s land.
The man walks on his property every day, and on Oct. 23, he walked by where the maintenance work was done, and spotted what he believed were human remains. He said most people would not recognize them as human remains because they were fragmented.
He called the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office and reported the disturbance. His name is not being used to avoid disclosing the location of the cultural site.
“My sense is that nobody tried to do anything intentionally,” he said.
Burlington Northern has hired an archaeologist who met with the approval of the various involved agencies and the Yakama Nation. The archaeologist will assess the extent of the damage to the site, and the best way to remediate it, Nichols said.
Nichols said there are at least four disturbed areas on the site.
“Thankfully, we don’t see this kind of damage very often. Having said that, any damage to cultural resources is not acceptable,” Nichols said.
He said the gorge commission will conduct its own assessment of what he called “a serious violation” of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.
“We will work with the same parties to determine an appropriate action in response to the violation.”
The gorge commission is authorized to levy a $10,000 fine for each violation of the National Scenic Area act, Nichols said.
The commission can also order parties to mitigate the situation “in order to restore the integrity of the resources,” he said.
He said Burlington Northern “has been very responsive. We were contacted very quickly” by several departments within the company, he said. “They have repeatedly stressed their interest in the long term protection of resources in the National Scenic Area.”
There is no date set for the completion of the archaeologist’s report, Nichols said.
Marge Dryden, the archaeologist for the Gorge Commission and the U.S. Forest Service, said the disturbance was not intentional. “It was not damaged purposely, but it does not diminish the effect to the burial.”
She said Burlington Northern is “a big organization with lots of movement and changeover in personnel in time and geographically.” The cultural resource study that was done by Burlington Northern was done in relation to a wildfire that occurred in 2003, she said.
Dryden and her counterparts at the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and the Yakama Nation will review the field work of the archaeologist hired by Burlington Northern.