As Greg A. Vital trudges through the thick brush under a forested section of his property in Meigs County, he points out a section of land where Tennessee Valley Authority-affiliated archaeologists discovered what they referred to as “potential cultural” resources on a site where the federally owned corporation plans to construct a transmission line.
“Six weeks ago they informed me that they had identified artifacts and potential graves,” Vital said. “Since then, there has been nothing but silence.”
Instead, Vital said TVA has shifted the proposed transmission line several hundred feet east of the site, without consulting him or any of the residents who own property adjacent to area where the proposed transmission line is to be constructed.
“What they have done is steamroll in and lay out a power line and cut a 6 to 8-foot swath all the way to their proposed transmission route,” Vital said. “They have not revealed anything to the property owners on what was identified. There is a high probability there are more.”
Vital said TVA has not checked to verify if more relics or artifacts related to Native American culture are present along the new route. As a result, he wants them to delay the project.
“Stop the steamrolling and be transparent,” Vital said of TVA. “Let’s sit here and identify what has been found and find alternatives to the project.”
The TVA undertaking – dubbed Project Viper – would construct a $26 million new transmission line that would begin at its Sequoyah Nuclear plant and extend northwest about 5.25 miles to the proposed Gunstocker Creek station, which would be located at the intersections of Highways 58 and 60 in Meigs County.
The line will also run through portions of Bradley and Hamilton counties, connecting to the planned systems’ control facility.
About 4.25 miles of existing line would be torn down and replaced with double-circuit poles. The transmission line project is projected to be complete by 2021.
In addition, the project would relocate TVA's downtown Chattanooga operations center to a 185,000-square-foot systems control facility located on 167 acres near Georgetown and Gunstocker Creek. It is projected to be completed and running by 2023.
The pathways for the transmission lines will range from 100 feet to 150 feet after they have been constructed, Vital said.
The cultural resources identified by TVA appear to be stone structures that indigenous peoples constructed on the slope of a ridge that crosses Vital's property.
The structures, which also may be referred to as cairns, appear to be mounds of carefully placed slabs of limestone or some other type of sedimentary rock. There are several that dot the side of the ridge overlooking a nearby stream.
One such structure resembles a turtle, with stacks of stone depicting a shell and others placed to bear the likeness of a turtle’s extended neck. Of the perhaps eight or more rock formations present at the site, it is the largest and mostly undisturbed.
In the area were TVA has staked out its alternative route, there are similar structures, according to Vital. As a result, the area where the planned transmission line has been re-routed also needs to be studied by archaeologists.
“There has been no testing of the new area under the Section 106 archaeology review,” Vital said. “They have not been back here to see what else is here. A complete archaeological study has not been completed.”
According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies, including NEH, to consider the effects of federally funded projects on historic properties and to afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation an opportunity to comment on such projects prior to the expenditure of any federal funds.”
In addition, “Section 106 covers a broad range of projects, including construction, renovation, repair, or rehabilitation, ground disturbances and changes to an area’s visual characteristics.”
TVA spokesperson Scott Fiedler last month told the Banner that results of a survey of the site were turned over to the Tennessee Historical Preservation Office. Fiedler declined to describe what had been discovered by the archaeologists.
"We want to protect this resource and will not share any additional information with the public," Fiedler told the Banner. "We will continue to work with the property owners through the process."
Vital said TVA is not following the guidelines of the NHPA.
“They just re-staked the [transmission] line to avoid the area,” Vital said, adding TVA began re-routing the proposed line soon after the cultural resources were found on his land.
“There has been no study or information shared with the property owners or the tribes. It’s hard for me to fathom that three weeks after they found graves, they came back to lay it out."
Along the existing and alternative routes, workers have been cutting down trees and placing survey markers. Vital said the transmission lines will cut a “huge swath” across his property and disturb what he considers a sacred site where indigenous peoples populated the area for hundreds of years, perhaps millennia.
TVA spokesperson Malinda Hunter told the Banner that TVA is performing assessments of the easement areas in Meigs County.
She said there is a process to selecting routes for transmission lines, with the best option as the eastern route, which would avoid the tract of land where the cultural resources were recently discovered.
"They [the landowners] are aware this is what route we are pursuing," Hunter said.
She said TVA is unaware of the presence of cultural resources at the alternate route.
Hunter said the assessments will determine if any cultural resources are present. If so, she said TVA would not locate the transmission lines on those portions of land.
"If it comes up, then we would not do that," Hunter said.
Vital said he suspects the Native American relics at the site could predate Cherokee Indian culture. In addition, Vital said archaeologists have noted the stone structures appear to be laid out in a symmetrical pattern that needs to be studied for its significance.
The lack of communication from TVA regarding the cultural resources at the site has been frustrating, Vital said.
“We know this [site] is sacred and sensitive," Vital said. "TVA said they would study it for the next six months, but I don’t know how they can study it if they have been occupied by laying out 'stakes and survey markers along transmission line route.'"
Vital said he wants TVA to delay the project to better understand the site’s cultural importance.
“This was an important enough place to bury someone,” Vital said. “This must have been home and special enough to leave their loved ones here. They took time to honor someone here in this place and setting.”
Re-routing the transmission line is not the answer, Vital said, because the full significance of the site is yet to be fully understood and documented.
“We don’t just jump over the site,” Vital said. “They [TVA] are not letting the fact they’ve discovered the graves slow down the project. They have quickened the pace to stake their claim.”
An alternate site west of the tract of land would be more ideal, Vital said, adding the area has already been disturbed by the removal of trees and other human-related activities. So far, TVA has refused to consider an alternate site for the transmission line.
As for the new route, Vital said TVA has made an “arbitrary decision” in maintaining its schedule for the project, without considering the damage to a important cultural resource.
“The answer is not just moving it over a couple hundred feet,” Vital said. “Don’t destroy Native American culture. All I’m asking is for TVA to slow down.”
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