Archaeological concerns that delayed final Norwich Hospital cleanup resolved

Preston — An agreement worked out by state, Preston and Mohegan tribal officials Friday has resolved an impasse over how to preserve some of the state’s most sensitive archaeological sites, a problem that nearly derailed the final cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property slated for major redevelopment by the Mohegan tribe.

The problem arose when Preston officials applied for environmental permits for the final cleanup of the 388-acre property before turning over ownership to the Mohegan tribe, First Selectman Robert Congdon said Monday. Whenever state grant money is involved — the state provided a $10 million cleanup grant — the state Historic Preservation Office must approve the permit.

A previous archaeological survey of the property revealed sites of early human activity ranging from 10,000 to 300 years ago.

The key area is the site of a village estimated to be about 2,000 years old that could contain disposal pits and cooking areas that could reveal evidence of food resources and daily life, and possible burial sites, said Catherine Labadia, staff archaeologist with the state Historic Preservation Office. Labadia declined to identify the specific area deemed highly sensitive, but said the Norwich Hospital property contains “some of the most sensitive historical sites in the state,” with one Native American site having the potential to contain human burials.

Labadia met with Congdon, Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent, representatives from engineering firms hired by the town and tribal planners Friday to work out a plan for the property cleanup that protects the archaeologically sensitive areas.

Two weeks ago, state officials ordered the town to halt of all ground remediation and called for extensive testing, new maps to flag sensitive areas and avoidance of large swaths of the property.

Those restrictions would have killed Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment’s plan for a $200 million to $600 million resort, recreation and entertainment complex on the property, Congdon said.

Congdon praised Labadia and the state officials involved in the resolution, calling it a stark contrast to the budget and political fights going on at the state Capitol and in Washington.

“Given all the other stuff going on nationally and with the state government, Sean and I walked out of the meeting and said, ‘This is how business should be done,’” Congdon said. “You sit down, discuss your issues and come to an agreement.”

"We found last week’s meeting to discuss engineering plans for the Preston Riverwalk site very productive," stated the Mohegan tribe in a statement it released. "The two-hour meeting with representatives from the state, town and a number of agencies was very helpful and we look forward to the next steps in the process of developing the 388-acre site.”

The plan calls for the environmental crews to make notations on maps and confine their work as much as possible, Labadia said. Crews will use a flat blade to scrape off old pavement and coal ash roadbeds to reveal the natural dirt layer. Archaeologists will examine the ground for signs of human activity, such as soil stains or charred areas, testing when needed. Finding actual artifacts is less likely, Labadia said.

If any signs of human burials are found, Labadia said state Archaeologist Brian Jones would be called to inspect the area.

“The goal is to mark those at this time, and as concept plans are being developed, if areas can be avoided, that would be good. If not, we would work with the Mohegan tribe on a plan for reburial,” Labadia said.

Along with resolving archaeological obstacles, which cost several thousand dollars in engineering fees, Preston officials also spent about $25,000 on a study of whether the sandy Thames River bank area of the property contained habitat for the endangered sand tiger beetle. While no signs of the beetle have been found, state environmental officials want to preserve the sandy habitat.

Nugent said the area, about 3 acres in size, could be traversed by a boardwalk or built over using stilts at some point. The area now is undeveloped, but has been used by off-road vehicles, Congdon said.

“We’ve given them plans on where we want to consolidate and remediate, and they have agreed our activity will not affect the area of beetle,” Congdon said. “We got to a workable solution.”

The delays in obtaining remediation permits also cost the town about six months. The development agreement with the tribe signed in April estimated final cleanup to take about a year. Congdon said some of that time can be recovered by bringing in additional crews, but the original schedule will slip.

The town already has received a portion of the $10 million cleanup grant, Nugent said. Work to abate contamination from remaining buildings is underway. The town will tear down one remaining building, while the agreement with the tribe calls for the tribe to tear down any other remaining structures once abatement is done, Nugent said.

“We’ll have to see,” Nugent said of the prospect of recovering lost time. “I find it hard to believe we’ll start remediation action by the end of the year, early spring is more likely. We can have the paperwork done, abatement and some demolition (by the end of the year).”

c.bessette@theday.com

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