By Spencer Philps
A host of issues have emerged in recent months that look to complicate the James River Water Authority’s plans to construct a water pump station at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers. The site, today referred to as Point of Fork, is also the location of Rassawek, the historic capital of the Monacan Indian Nation.
As development has boomed in Zion Crossroads, despite a dwindling supply of groundwater, Louisa and Fluvanna counties have sought an alternate long-term water source, and formed the authority to pump water to the area from the James.
The Monacans, a tribe federally recognized in 2018, have fiercely opposed the construction project, saying it will irreparably harm the culturally significant site, as well as disturb the remains of Monacans likely to be buried there. More than 1,300 individuals and organizations have signed a letter sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Governor Ralph Northam opposing the project.
Although the JRWA has able to secure two permits for the pump station, it still needs at least two more: one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for impacts to streams and wetlands under federal jurisdiction, and one from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for a second anticipatory burial permit in case the water authority encounters burial sites or human remains during excavation.
The JRWA has faced roadblocks for both permits. On September 6, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources issued a letter stating that it would be unable to issue a permit in part because it had deemed the archeological consultant on the project, Carol Tyrer and her firm, Circa Cultural Resource Management, lacked the necessary qualifications.
On September 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a letter to the JRWA saying it had become aware of the issues with Carol Tyrer and her firm, and based upon the “concerns and uncertainty regarding the proposed project’s impact to historic properties,” was now requiring JRWA to undergo a more comprehensive individual permitting process for the project.
Things grew increasingly fraught in October, when a former employee of Circa Cultural Resource Management brought forward allegations of wrongdoing at the Rassawek site. The whistleblower, Eric Mai, alleged that Circa sent an unqualified and untrained crew to survey and excavate at the site, lied to DHR officials, produced misleading and plagiarized reports, and did not provide appropriate resources or equipment for workers, resulting in the maltreatment of artifacts. Mai alleges that Circa went so far as to alter his resume to give him qualifications he did not possess, unbeknownst to him at the time.
“The whistleblower came forward with more information with what happened out there at the archeological study at Point of Fork, which was just devastating,” says attorney Marion Werkheiser, whose firm represents the Monacan Indian Nation. “It’s clear that they were using construction workers to excavate the most sensitive parts of the site, who had no training, no supervision. We’ll never know what was lost in that process.”
Justin Curtis, the lawyer representing the JRWA, says there is still an ongoing investigation into the allegations raised by Mai.
“Nothing has been stated publicly about that process because we are still evaluating the information and haven’t come to any conclusions at this time.” Curtis says. “Everything is being fully vetted and fully evaluated.”
As a result of the whistleblower report, the Monacan Nation is now arguing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is legally barred from giving a permit to the JRWA per Section 110(k) of the National Historic Preservation Act, which states that federal agencies are forbidden to issue a permit to an applicant who has “intentionally significantly adversely affected a historic property to which the grant would relate.”
“The way that we read that whistleblower complaint, it was clear that there had been destruction of the site as a result of Circa’s work there,” Werkheiser says.
Curtis says he strongly disagrees with this conclusion.
“That section…is intended to prevent unscrupulous parties from going out and intentionally destroying historical or cultural resources and then claiming ‘Oh, there’s no resources here’ after they’ve already gone out and destroyed them. That’s clearly not what’s happened here.” he says.
The Monacan Nation has notified the Army Corps of Engineers about its concerns, but Werkheiser says it does not expect a response until the water authority completes its application.
Meanwhile, in November, the JRWA filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, contesting the department’s conclusions about Tyrer’s qualifications and arguing that it was not involved in processes that ought to have been afforded it under state and departmental regulations. And Tyrer has filed her own lawsuit against the DHR in the Virginia Circuit Court for Williamsburg and James City County. She declined to comment for this story.
Curtis says that he is optimistic that the issue can be resolved “through further discussions with DHR,” and believes that the JRWA will be able to submit its completed permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by January.