Bridge project on hold after discovery of possible Indian site 5-6-07

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) - A bridge project that officials plan to use as a key link in redeveloping Bellingham's waterfront has been put on hold because of the discovery of possible Indian settlement remains.

Seashells were found during drilling that is part of preliminary engineering work for the project to build a bridge along Laurel Street, Public Works Director Dick McKinley said.

The shells could be part of a midden - a heap of shells such as those that commonly accumulated around ancient settlements where people ate lots of clams and other mollusks. Federal law protects such sites, which can also contain the bones of ancient inhabitants.

City officials hope to begin building the bridge next year, to maintain access to the waterfront while other bridges are replaced so railroad tracks can be relocated. The presence of an ancient village site with human remains could stop the project.

For now, more research will be done to determine whether the shells are part of a midden. “We don't know yet what it really means for sure,” McKinley said.

In 2004, the remains of hundreds of people were found at an ancient village site in Port Angeles, where the state Department of Transportation was building a graving dock to make parts for rebuilding the Hood Canal floating bridge.

The discovery eventually prompted the state to abandon the site and write off more than $50 million it had already spent.

McKinley said he doesn't think Bellingham will face anything that drastic, but wants the issue resolved before moving forward.

“I still think were going to build the Laurel Street Bridge,” he said. “I wouldn't bet $10 million on it, however.”

The city has contacted the Lummi, Nooksack and Samish tribes about the find.

Samish Tribe chairman Tom Wooten said he was glad the city is taking the issue seriously and working with the tribal governments.

The Port Angeles episode was an “extreme example,” and even if a midden is present, it may be possible to resolve tribal concerns without stopping the project, he said.

If the bridge cannot be built as planned, McKinley said the city could still figure out a way to provide waterfront access using other routes.