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Oil refinery site may be home to ancient relics

Land sale may threaten archaeological artefacts in Arizona.


Plans to build the first oil refinery in the United States for nearly 30 years are heading for trouble over claims that the intended site may harbour important Native American archaeology.

Building site: the Gila River valley could house the first US oil refinery to be built for decades. Credit: R. DALTON

The site is in the Gila River valley in Yuma county, Arizona, and is part of 22,600 hectares currently owned by the US Bureau of Reclamation. The region served as a major route across the Sonora Desert for centuries before the railroads were built.

Archaeological surveys have identified lots of finds in the valley — from rock paintings to former dwelling locations — that might help answer intriguing questions about life in an environmentally lush desert passage. “Archaeologists have long been interested in the valley,” says Jeffrey Altschul, an archaeologist at Statistical Research, a Tucson-based consultancy.

The reclamation bureau is in the process of transferring the 22,600 hectares to the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District. The district then plans to sell 1,200 hectares of it to Phoenix-based Arizona Clean Fuels, for construction of the $2.5-billion oil refinery.

No archaeological sites have been identified on the proposed site for the refinery, officials say, because it hasn't been surveyed yet.

As required by law, the bureau hires archaeologists to examine public land that is going to be sold or transferred, to ensure that important sites are charted for protection. But the irrigation district has pushed to speed up the deal before archaeological studies are complete so that it can sell the land for the refinery.

Given the high financial stakes and Arizona's history of building over archaeological sites, community watchdog groups and Native American tribes are expressing concerns about the plan. “People need to take a hard look at what is going on,” says Steve Brittle, who runs Don't Waste Arizona, a Phoenix-based environmental group.

Brittle and other critics fear that the bureau may buckle under commercial and political pressure, and transfer the land too quickly. Bureau officials in Yuma and Washington say that they are following all legal requirements, and will continue to do so.

The handling of the site could set a precedent for other sell-offs, as the bureau seeks to dispose of several sites in the western United States. The Gila River transfer is one of about 16 currently being undertaken by the bureau — and the first known to contain important archaeological remains.

Archaeological studies are now just getting under way on a larger land transfer of 33,200 hectares of the Humboldt River basin in northern Nevada, for example. Initial analysis indicates that these lands may also include significant archaeological sites.

The bureau will release a more comprehensive analysis of the Arizona site early next year. Native American tribes pushed for a more in-depth investigation after claiming that a 2002 government study wasn't sufficiently comprehensive.

But irrigation-board officials are becoming frustrated with the length of time taken to do the studies, and they are considering giving up on their plans for some of the archaeologically sensitive lands, so that they can secure the sale of the refinery tract.

This week in Yuma, the county government was expected to take the first step towards granting permission for the refinery project, which is also expected to draw opposition on environmental grounds.


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Arizona Clean Fuels

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Dalton, R. Oil refinery site may be home to ancient relics. Nature 432, 790 (2004).

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