History Underground Can Impact Your Project

By: Alicia Bailey, P.E. 

Have you ever wondered how paving a new road through an undisturbed wooded area impacts the environment?  Sain Associates certainly has. Sometimes there are no major issues, but occasionally an engineer can get an unhappy surprise. 

Every transportation project with federal funds requires an environmental report to be prepared to evaluate the project’s impact on all aspects of the environment.  Such studies include streams and wetlands, threatened and endangered species, hazardous materials, noise and air, and cultural resources.

Sain’s Cahaba Road/US-280 ramps/Lane Park Road roundabout project in the Cities of Mountain Brook and Birmingham produced an unanticipated cultural resource issue . . . an unmarked cemetery in the project area.

The initial cultural resources study revealed that a portion of the project area is within the old Red Mountain Cemetery which is documented to have 4,711 burials from July 1888 to July 1905.  The cemetery was used as a pauper’s cemetery for victims of disease from nearby pest houses, victims of violence, county convicts who were executed, and others who died from disease or natural causes whose families did not arrange for private burial.  Since the project vicinity contained unmarked burial sites, there is a strong possibility graves could exist in the area where excavation is needed to construct the roundabout.

The next step after completing the historical research is deployment of ground penetrating radar (GPR) to search for subsurface anomalies that could indicate the presence of a grave.  The anomalies are mapped, and those with high or medium probability are then excavated by an archaeologist.  The ultimate goal is to honor the historical significance of these burial grounds and preserve any remains so they can be re-interred at another location.

Fortunately for this project, the excavation revealed no human remains exist in the project area.  Therefore, the project can move forward from an environmental standpoint.

Environmental studies can sometimes discover unknown impacts to our environment which may require changes to project plans, additional investigations, or could even be project-stoppers.   Since the environmental phase flushes out red flag issues that could alter the direction of a project, it’s better to perform these studies early in the project process.

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