Steel walls of former graving yard to come out this summer 5-16-07

PORT ANGELES, Wash. (AP) - The harbor front bluffs will echo with the clanging of pile drivers this summer as they extract the walls of the former Hood Canal Bridge graving yard like so many sheet-steel teeth.

Contractors also will break up and haul away the yard's 91/2-acre, 11,000-cubic-yard concrete floor, most likely sending it and the steel pile away in trucks.

The work probably will start in mid- or late June after the state hires contractors and pays them $3 million to fill the hole that the state Department of Transportation spent $87 million to dig, said John Wynands, project manager.

The new money also will pay to return 2,000 dump-truckloads of earth to the mammoth cavity in the crook of Ediz Hook from the Fields Shotwell Recycling Facility west of town.

That's where dirt dug up early in the doomed graving yard project was taken.

Eventually - months later, perhaps longer - the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe will rebury the intact remains of 337 ancestors uncovered at Tse-whit-zen, the ancestral village and cemetery that occupied the site for centuries before Europeans arrived.

Later still, the tribe plans to build a museum and cultural center on the Marine Drive slice of the 22.5-acres site.

There it will share some of Tse-whit-zen's archaeological 86,000 treasures that now are stored at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

There's closure. Then there's closure.

Transportation hopes to finish its share of restoring the Tse-whit-zen site by late fall.

The last thing Wynands wants is to make a mess in the mud once winter comes.

As the earth from Shotwell is returned, tribal members will examine each load as it is loaded and unloaded, searching for ancestral remains.

That earth will join the 6,000 cubic yards that remain piled at the yard, waiting to be sifted for artifacts and skeletal fragments.

Lower Elwha Chairwoman Frances Charles said she can't predict how long it will take to restore the site, but she noted the Lummi Nation in Whatcom County needed a decade to remediate a similar ancestral place.

The graving yard - a huge onshore dry dock - would have been used to build giant concrete replacement components for the crumbling east end of the Hood Canal Bridge.

However, excavators uncovered artifacts and human remains soon after work started in August 2003.

Contractors and archaeologists worked simultaneously at the site until December 2004, when the tribe withdrew its approval of the project.

With the work went about 100 family-wage jobs - many of which would have gone to tribal members - and $87 million that had been spent at the site.

Throughout 2005 and half of 2006, some non-Native residents of Port Angeles protested the tribe's action - sometimes bitterly - and the Lower Elwha and Transportation sued each other.

Those lawsuits will die when the state transfers to the tribe the title to the site sometime in 2008 and pays it $2.5 million to rebury its ancestors building the museum.

Also part of the settlement are twin $7.5 million payments to the city of Port Angeles and Port of Port Angeles for lost development revenue, plus more money for the city to survey the waterfront for other remains.

In the meantime, shipyards in Tacoma and Seattle are fabricating the huge concrete pontoons and anchors for the bridge that's the North Olympic Peninsula's lifeline for food, fuel and tourists.

Onlookers may be drawn to Tse-whit-zen this summer when pile drivers reverse the process that pounded 80-foot sheet-steel sections into the ground.

A cable will run from the pile driver's weight, over its pulley and to the top of a piling, allowing the driver to yank the steel from the ground bit by bit.

“The agreement signed back in August 2006 said that we would be removing the sheet pile,” Wynands said, “and that's what we're going to do.”

He spoke of the settlement signed Aug. 14, 2006, by Charles, Port Angeles Mayor Karen Rogers and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

It ended the snarl of litigation between the tribe and the state.

The Lower Elwha are concerned that vibrations from removing the yard's walls and floor may further disturb remains still buried at the site.

“It's going to be a challenge for them,” Charles said of the Transportation contractors.

“We realize that.

“They'll do the best they can, and we'll be right there working with them.”

Sharon Haensly of the Seattle law firm of Williams, Kastner & Gibbs, the tribe's attorneys, said state officials are helping push the process along.

Cooperation, she said, has replaced the rancor that marked earlier negotiations.

“I think the people at the table all want to do a good job and not delay,” she said.

Sonya Tetnowski, tribal executive director, added, “We've reached a turning point where the agencies and the tribe are working to put the ancestors to rest.

“I feel that we're finally there.”

The parties signed a formal agreement Wednesday that describes in detail what will be done if contractors encounter more burials as they close the site.

When earth from Shotwell begins arriving at Tse-whit-zen, the tribe won't take the material and simply “dump it into the holes,” Charles said.

Some of it will be screened immediately for remains and artifacts. Some will be set aside to sift later.

“It's going to take time,” Charles said.

It's also going to take more earth.

What was taken to Shotwell no longer contains much of its rocks and heavy sediments; therefore, clean fill dirt eventually will top the site.

How it finally will appear is another matter the tribe will decide later.

“Maybe Mother Nature herself will reseed some of the grass,” Charles said.

“I don't have a picture to say, 'This is what it is going to look like.”'

The central part of the 22.5-acre tract - where archaeologists discovered and recovered the remains - will be treated as a cemetery, she said.

The tribe's priority continues to be reburying ancestral remains.

For many Lower Elwha Klallam, the ancestors' spirits are present - and longing to be returned to what they thought would be their final resting place.

Tribal members have asked the ancestors for patience, Charles said.

Next month, Lower Elwha and representatives of many other tribes and Canadian First Nations will hold a centuries-old burning ceremony at Tse-whit-zen.

They will set a table for a feast and add clothing and other objects.

The items will be set afire, sending them to the ancestors so that they may know they are remembered.

A similar ceremony was conducted at Tse-whit-zen 10 days after the first human remains were found in 2003.

Finding desecrated remains and storing intact burials in cedar boxes until they can be reinterred was painful, Charles said, both for tribal elders and for younger members who worked alongside archaeologists.

“I can still see the pain in their faces, the sorrow they have witnessed,” she said.

Still, the graving yard project reconnected the tribe to much of its history - and to closely related Canadian First Nations on Vancouver Island.

The Lower Elwha have received ancient stories and songs that those nations and other U.S. tribes preserved, Charles said.

They included a song that told of a Tse-whit-zen chief who sent his daughter to wed a warrior of the Skokomish tribe whose reservation now is in Mason County.

The Lower Elwha also have found many more branches of the tribe's family tree.

“It's a lot bigger than anybody thinks,” Charles said. “It's a lot bigger than I thought.”

Turning the site back to what it was before it became a lumber mill site, log storage area and graving yard “is going to bring back a lot of hurt, but at the same time it's going to bring closure,” Charles said.

The task of reburying the ancestors will involve every tribal member, she said.

The museum, Charles said, will be a chance for the Lower Elwha and all of Clallam County to learn the region's history, Charles said.

“It will be something that everyone's going to be proud of,” she said, but added that it is unlikely that archaeological exploration will resume at Tse-whit-zen.

As for any lingering ill feelings over the shutdown, she said she hoped those will pass.

“We were raised to forgive,” Charles said of tribal teachings, “and not to carry that burden.

“We were told to pray.”