IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Federal regulators have issued a permit to allow construction of a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Iowa after a deal was reached to require workers to monitor the site to ensure it is not an Indian burial ground, an official told The Associated Press on Monday.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the permit last week to the Iowa Fertilizer Company, a subsidiary of Egypt-based Orascom Construction Industries, to build the plant near Burlington, regulatory project manager Wayne Hannel said in a phone interview. It will be one of the largest capital projects in state history.
He said the permit was issued shortly after the Corps, state officials and tribal representatives reached an agreement to have workers carefully remove the soil in a 20-meter radius of where earlier testing discovered an ancient clay pipe fragment. The deal also requires another part of the 320-acre site, once believed to house an Indian seasonal camp, to be excavated so researchers can recover and preserve ancient artifacts.
The permit removes what had been a temporary roadblock for the project, which Gov. Terry Branstad has touted as an economic boon for southeast Iowa. Branstad says it will employ 2,500 construction workers and 165 full-time workers once built and provide a cheaper, local source of fertilizer for the region's farmers. But Democratic lawmakers have accused Branstad of awarding too many incentives for the project, which has been promised more than $200 million in local and state tax breaks.
The pipe — likely between 1,000 and 2,000 years old — could indicate the presence of human remains or a burial ground because pipes were sometimes buried with their owners or as part of a ceremony or peace offering, archaeologists say. But initial testing has revealed no evidence of remains, and researchers believe the fragment was discovered on the ground, which makes it more likely it was simply discarded and not buried.
Still, state archaeologist John Doershuk said Iowa law strictly protects Indian burial grounds, and required more research be done to ensure that one is not present.
"We're pretty comfortable it's a very low probability, but not enough to not take the direct step of looking," he said. "We don't want to miss something."
The agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, requires the soil to be removed in shallow increments under the supervision of a professional archaeologist near the pipe discovery.
"The intent of this work shall be to insure that no human burials or human remains are located within this area," according to the document, which was obtained by The Associated Press under Iowa's public records law from the State Historic Preservation Office.
If any human remains or burials are found, workers must immediately halt construction and notify state and local officials. Doershuk said that would likely trigger a lengthy negotiation with tribes on how to proceed.
The memorandum allows Doershuk's office and representatives of two Indian tribes — the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes — to monitor the work. Both tribes had ancestors who lived in the area.
Fort Peck tribal representative Curly Youpee met with regulators last month at the site to discuss the significance of the pipe, according to meeting minutes obtained by AP.
"Mr. Youpee ... indicated that such an object was sacred and may have been associated with a spiritual house or as part of a potential offering," they say. "Mr. Youpee also described the importance and use of pipes in ceremony and life and how a pipe might be placed in the earth. He described the placement of pipes in celebration of a hunt, potential association with human burials and how a broken pipe could be buried."
Doershuk said another part of the site — likely 10 acres or more — appears to be a former habitation site, perhaps a series of seasonal camps or a village where Indians once lived. He said the company's contractor will be required to do a "full-scale archaeological investigation" there.
The artifacts recovered will likely end up at a state repository at the University of Iowa and be made available for research and educational purposes, Doershuk said.