By Tracy Correa Lopez
Two years ago, PG&E crews working on a gas transmission project near Tracy in San Joaquin County unearthed a dusty box with a cemetery label and what turned out to be cremated remains inside.
Construction was immediately halted and PG&E’s cultural resource specialists, a dedicated team of in-house archaeologists, were notified. The box was carefully handled and the circumstances of the remains investigated in a joint effort that included PG&E land agents.
“I was able to return to his family the box with all of his remains,” said PG&E’s Kim Cuevas, senior cultural resource specialist based in Bakersfield.
“That made me feel really good… and, I think it says a lot about the company that we would put in the extra effort,” she said.
Cuevas has a unique role as one of nine archaeologists who make up PG&E’s cultural resource specialist team. They work closely with various lines of business — most often gas, electric and energy supply — related to construction projects. They help to ensure that PG&E, its employees and contractors comply with all applicable environmental laws and regulations, including stewardship of cultural resources.
This means PG&E crews are obligated to call the team anytime they uncover anything that resembles a cultural resource or human remains and immediately stop work within 100 feet of the discovery.
Cultural resources include Native American artifacts — such as arrowheads, stones and tools — hardware, ceramics, human and animal remains and even buildings.
Encountering artifacts on a project site isn’t unusual, said Jennifer Darcangelo, tribal and cultural resources land consultant who supports the PG&E team.
“We can’t always avoid these things,” said Darcangelo, who is based in Sacramento.
She said that PG&E’s infrastructure covers so much area and much of it was already in place before many of the environmental laws and regulations took effect.
Often discoveries help paint a story or reveal a snapshot in time.
Last year, during gas pipeline work in Old Town Sacramento, crews discovered remains of a building that turned out to be part of a saloon from the 1800s. The bricks and artifacts unearthed are now part of a display in the PG&E Gateway Oaks office in Sacramento.
A lot of the team’s work centers on relationship building with customers, including partnering with the more than 100 local Native American Indian tribes and communities in PG&E’s service area. For example, PG&E has worked closely with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians in the central foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Tuolumne County where a number of tribal artifacts were unearthed during a recent hydroelectric maintenance project.
PG&E’s Jim Nelson, senior cultural resource specialist based in Chico, was part of a team involved in the restoration of historic gatehouses at the company’s Pit River 1 hydroelectric system. The project meant adhering to historic preservation laws and working with teams of experts that included the State Historic Preservation Office, and architectural historians.
The refurbished gatehouse structures were repaired and rebuilt to their original historic design and function and Nelson says it exemplified PG&E’s commitment to preserve and protect important historic resources.
PG&E’s work in the area also means working closely with leaders of the Pit River Tribe in Burney (Shasta County), doing periodic walk-throughs and having face-to-face meetings.
“It spurs the communication and consultation to check in with the tribe,” said Nelson.
While PG&E is sometimes required to work with the tribes, it has also demonstrated that it wants to go above and beyond to maintain these relationships, say members of the cultural resources team.
“I have to say, I’m very proud of what we do as far as our stewardship,” said Nelson.
As for the remains discovered in Tracy, Cuevas worked with Robert Villaseñor, a PG&E San Ramon-based land technician, to track down the family based on property records. It turns out the man’s family had buried the remains on the property about 50 years earlier, but the land changed hands and memories faded.
When the mystery began to unravel, Cuevas contacted and later delivered the remains to the deceased man’s niece in Napa; she says it gave her comfort and closure. The man’s family was appreciative that PG&E went to such great lengths to find them.
“We are not just doing this, because we have to, it’s the right thing to do,” said Cuevas.
Email Tracy Correa Lopez at Tracy.Correa@pge.com.