Oxford project shut down: Oversight in reporting human remains costs city thousands, delays work
by Patrick McCreless
Staff Writer
Mar 25, 2010 | 13981 views |  75 comments | 145 145 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Idle equipment sits at the future Oxford sports complex near the Oxford Exchange. Photo: Steve Gross/The Anniston Star
Idle equipment sits at the future Oxford sports complex near the Oxford Exchange. Photo: Steve Gross/The Anniston Star
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Construction on a multi-million-dollar Oxford sports complex halted a month ago because the discovery of ancient human remains at the site was not reported to the proper authorities — an oversight that so far has forced the city to pay approximately $200,000 to its idle project contractor.

The Oxford City Council briefly discussed the situation during the work session before its regular meeting Tuesday. The council agreed to sit down with all parties involved at 10 a.m. April 5 at City Hall to learn how the oversight occurred and to get the project started again. The parties involved include a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which shut down the project; Taylor Corp., the contractor; University of Alabama archaeologist Robert Clouse, who is overseeing the project; and engineering firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.

"There's obviously been an oversight and someone's responsible for that oversight," Councilman Mitch Key said Tuesday.

Council President Chris Spurlin said the Corps of Engineers stopped the project around late February because it was not notified about the remains, which were discovered around Jan. 8 at the construction site on Davis Farm across from the Oxford Exchange. The wetlands permit the city obtained to develop the Davis Farm site stipulates the corps must be notified if any remains and/or artifacts are discovered.

Spurlin said the city has had to pay approximately $12,000 a day, except for days of rain, during the shutdown period to Taylor Corp.

Taylor's contract states the city must cover equipment and manpower costs for every day the project is shut down for reasons beyond the construction company's control, he said.

"Every two days, we're paying Taylor Corp. what it would cost for a new police car," Spurlin said.

To date, the city has spent more than $5.9 million on the project, most of it for the purchase of the property.

Mayor Leon Smith, who has told The Star on several occasions that he has been against the sports complex project since it began, has apparently washed his hands of this latest ordeal.

"I'm totally out, myself," Smith said after the Tuesday meeting.

Councilwoman June Reaves said she hoped the project would restart as soon as possible.

"We definitely need it," she said of the complex.

Spurlin said the corps has not budged on its decision to shut down the project because it is waiting on a detailed report from Clouse about when, where and how the remains were found.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested a timeline of events leading up to, and the discovery of, the human remains that were found on the Davis Farm project," Clouse wrote in a Wednesday e-mail to The Star. "That timeline was submitted. Subsequent to the submittal of the timeline, the Corps of Engineers requested a report on all of the findings of the archaeological monitoring conducted to date on the Davis Farm project. That report is still in production and has not yet been submitted."

Clouse's involvement became significant in recent months because of two contradictory reports on a mound behind the Oxford Exchange that he filed last year with Oxford.

The first report, commissioned by the city, claimed the mound was manmade. The second report, published months later, offered a different opinion, saying the mound was the product of natural forces. Experts around the state, including those with the Alabama Historical Commission, disagreed with the second report and believe the mound is culturally significant.

One of those experts is Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, who has studied American Indian sites in this area for decades. Incidentally, engineering firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood — which the city contracted to apply for its wetlands permit — hired Holstein to conduct the archaeological portion of the permit in 2007.

"As part of the wetlands permit process, archaeology is incorporated," Holstein said. "We told them there were 24 archaeological sites on that parcel of land, including a temple mound and village areas. The Historical Commission concurred, and the city signed off on it."

Holstein claimed earlier this year that someone had bulldozed the temple mound, which may have contained human remains. Clouse and the city claim the mound is still there.

Holstein believes the few remains the city found in January are only the beginning of what will be discovered at the construction site.

"They're going to find more bodies," he said. "(Indians) didn't just bury one person in a large town like that."

Attempts to reach representatives of the Corps of Engineers on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
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