By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - A prominent Florida archaeologist says crews working on a high-speed rail project to connect Miami and Orlando failed to tell regulators about plans to dig near an ancient Native American site that he complains has disturbed ancient artifacts.
"There were hundreds of artifacts that were uncovered," Robert Carr, executive director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, said in an interview on Wednesday. He said he noticed construction work late last month in an area in north Miami that was once a Tequesta Indian village.
Among the artifacts dug up were conch shells and primitive axes, said Carr, who has worked on a number of Tequesta sites and done research for Martin County in southeast Florida, which strongly opposes the rail project.
The work is for All Aboard Florida, a 235-mile, $2.25 billion high-speed line expected to open in 2017. Its parent company, Florida East Coast Industries, is owned by investment firm Fortress Investment Group LLC.
Mass transit advocates say the rail link is badly needed to take cars off congested highways and that environmental concerns have been greatly exaggerated by critics seeking to find any means to derail the project.
Opponents of the project have slammed it as a financial boondoggle. Community activists in Vero Beach, about 140 miles (225 km) north of Miami, are also suing on environmental grounds, saying it would cut through a site where Ice Age-era remains of humans and other animals were found in the early 20th century.
The work at the north Miami site, involved a 2-foot (60-cm) deep trench to lay fiber-optic cable, Carr said.
"We have proper permissions for our work at the site, and we take all of our procedural obligations very seriously," All Aboard said in an emailed statement, adding it was working closely with historic preservation officials in Miami.
The Tequesta tribe is believed to have lived in South Florida from about 2,000 years ago until the 18th century.
Carr said that before the work, All Aboard had agreed there would be no adverse impact to the site. A 2012 report to the Federal Railroad Administration said the project would only include surface work and "no archaeological testing in advance of these improvements is warranted as there will be no adverse archaeological effects."
The dispute is one in a string of conflicts pitting civic activists against developers as South Florida undergoes another real estate boom.
After a heated disagreement last year, a Miami developer agreed to redesign a 34-storey hotel project to exhibit the site of a Tequesta village dating back two millennia.
Another developer was forced to sell land back to the state after a ceremonial Tequesta site called the Miami Circle was uncovered in 1998.
"We’re in the midst of a major building boom," Carr said. "We’re not telling them they shouldn’t build. They should do it in the right way with respect to these historical sites."
(Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)