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Developer Neglects Site, Blames State Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Tony Hays

[image] Nearly half of Swallow Bluff Island's largest mound has slid down the slope already. (Courtesy Nick Fielder, TDCE Department of Archaeology) [LARGER IMAGE]

The state of Tennessee has slapped a Lexington developer with $235,464 in fines and expenses for ignoring federal and state agencies while allowing a prehistoric site to wash into the Tennessee River.

The action represents the latest offensive in the Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment (TDCE)'s ten-month battle with Blankenship-Melton Development, Inc., over Swallow Bluff Island, located just downstream from Saltillo, in western Tennessee. The site, replete with Mississippian period mounds and burials, is eroding away as the result of work on Blankenship-Melton's planned 21-unit resort community. At stake as well are beds of endangered freshwater mussels.

"This site has been known since 1915," says Tennessee State Archaeologist Nick Fielder. "There's no question that there are intact village material and burials there. But the developers have stripped the bank and sloped it at a 45 degree angle." Those actions have left the largest mound particularly vulnerable; nearly half of it has slid down slope already.

Federal officials discovered the denuding of the shoreline on July 8. After a verbal notification that they needed to obtain a permit to build, Blankenship-Melton applied for the work permit on July 12, but withdrew the application on discovering that an archaeological survey would be required. That action prompted a flurry of warnings and orders, including a cease-and-desist demand from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the agency that controls the river and its system of dams. State officials scheduled a show-cause hearing to allow the developers an opportunity to explain their refusal to obtain the proper permits. The developers did not show up. A planned site visit with developer Walden Blankenship never materialized. On February 2, Tennessee's Commissioner of Environment and Conservation Milton H. Hamilton decided to move forward with a stronger offensive. It accused Blankenship-Melton of endangering federally protected wildlife and damaging Indian mounds and burial grounds and ordered the developers to stop the "rampant" erosion and pay $235,464 in fines and expenses.

In a bizarre twist, the developers say they are the victims of a conspiracy hatched by TVA and the state because they (the developers) alerted a Native American group to the destruction. The state has willingly allowed the TVA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers "to destroy the cemetery on Swallow Bluff Island and...pollute the waters of the Tennessee River with 30 million cubic feet of soil and human remains from Swallow Bluff Island," Blakenship told Archaeology. TDCE official Pat Patrick, who oversees water pollution control answers simply, "I can't figure out what they're talking about."

"The state will win," says Nick Fielder. "Until now all the orders and legal action have revolved around water pollution. But the state of Tennessee has a criminal statute against disturbing or desecrating cemeteries, and Indian burials fall under that law. You've got to let the process go forward, though, and take each thing in its turn."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America