Reps work to safeguard shipwrecks

Legislators from the area have commissioned some housekeeping work to prevent a repeat of the archaeological mishap off the Lewes coast.

There, a sand-pumping dredge churned through an underwater site, throwing historic artifacts onto the beach.

A quantity of broken glass came ashore as well, but Rep. Joe Booth (37th District) said the beach had been cleaned up and was once again safe for foot traffic.

“Heavy rain, or a nor’easter, will probably uncover some things again,” he admitted.

Offshore, he said the Army Corps of Engineers was enforcing a “no diving” perimeter, at least for the time being.

Booth and Rep. Gerald Hocker (38th District) are hoping to (1) improve pre-dredge bottom surveys, (2) clarify jurisdiction and (3) in the event of a repeat, move quickly to give archaeologists first crack.

However, their efforts met public opposition when some locals said such legislation would effectively halt beach renourishment projects.

“People thought this would shut the whole project down — all we wanted to do was give the proper authorities time to go in, take a look and see what’s there,” Hocker pointed out.
The representatives have retained Dan Griffith (director, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs) to see the legislation through. Griffith retired March 31, after 34 years in historic preservation.

“Basically, he’s going to be ours to work with on this,” Booth said. “We’re trying to look at different areas in the code, make sure there won’t be any confusion between different levels of government.”

In addition, according to Griffith, the old “State Antiquities Act,” passed in 1952, requires a permit from the governor, or someone designated by the governor, to halt operations and give archaeologists their window.

“It’s awkward to have the governor’s office involved in the permitting process,” Griffith said. “We’re going to suggest that duty should pass to the secretary of state.” (There was no such position back in 1952.)

Griffith anticipated such a change might help state government respond more quickly, in the event something like the Lewes mishap ever comes along again.

On the front end, he said they would be reevaluating the methods used for the initial surveys (magnetometer, side scan sonar).

“We want to make sure they’re thorough enough to see shipwrecks, and we’re also looking at revised training for the inspectors who study those surveys,” Griffith said.

“There are practical reasons to avoid those areas as well,” he pointed out. “Not only might you damage an historical site, you might also damage the dredging equipment.”

However, he said finding such obstacles wouldn’t necessarily mean the dredging company would have to relocate entirely.

According to Griffith, sand for the beaches comes from “borrow sites” between 25 and 30 acres in size. Dredges should be able to move to a different section if something turned up on the surveys.

“Our mission is not to stop beach replenishment,” Griffith emphasized. “Our mission is to protect historic shipwrecks (and biological areas).”

He said the revised State Antiquities Act would parallel the federal “Archaeological Resource Protection Act” and work in some “Abandoned Shipwrecks Act” guidelines.

While the bill is presently still in fledgling form, Booth said he hoped to see the legislation drafted and placed in committee by early May.

He expected it to go into either his own Natural Resources & Environmental Management Committee or (7th district, House Majority Leader) Rep. Wayne Smith’s House Administration Committee.

Smith is known as an avid history buff and has been following the work on the State Antiquities Act with some interest, according to Booth.