LIBERTY — A landowner has filed a complaint with the state Attorney General concerning the way the Mississippi Department of Transportation is handling a suspected cemetery site in the path of the Highway 24 four-lane project.
Attorney David H. Ogwyn, acting on behalf of landowner Buddy Dupuy, filed the complaint late Tuesday afternoon after Dupuy became dissatisfied with the way MDOT was surveying the property at the southeast corner of Highway 24 and Middle Glading Road.
MDOT officials and consultants arrived Tuesday morning to investigate a tract that elderly residents say was a cemetery that was bulldozed decades ago. No records of the cemetery are known to exist.
Last month Dupuy hired “grave dowser” Don Estes of Natchez to examine the property, and he identified what he said were 18 graves.
On Tuesday, MDOT workers laid out a 70-by-80 meter (275-by-315 foot) rectangle and began checking it with a ground-penetrating radar device.
“The sled that he’s dragging emits a pulse into the ground,” explained MDOT chief archaeologist John Underwood, referring to a lawnmower-size device pulled by Bryan Haley of Tulane University and University of Mississippi. “Different things underground reflect signals.”
MDOT planned to spend four to five days at the site, also using a magnetometer to examine the area. Underwood said it would take a couple weeks to analyze the findings and prepare a report.
But work was suspended Tuesday due to a scheduling conflict and other issues.
Ogwyn said MDOT originally planned to cover the property in one day and use a dual-antenna radar device. Instead it scheduled several days and brought a single-antenna instrument.
“The research is pretty clear that the dual-antenna system gives you a better depiction,” Ogwyn said. “The rules have been changed, so it’s frustrating.”
Dupuy had hired an independent consultant — LSU geophysicist Jeff Nunn — to observe the survey, and he wasn’t able to be there Wednesday, Ogwyn said.
“We agreed to meet and conduct the testing on Jan. 3. It was not until we were at the site that we were notified that the testing would necessarily extend beyond today,” he wrote in Tuesday’s letter to Jimmy Isonhood, Special Assistant Attorney General with the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office.
Ogwyn also said the radar wasn’t used Tuesday on the sites that the grave-dowser identified.
“If the purpose of today’s work was to confirm the existence of the cemetery why wasn’t that area tested?” Ogwyn said in Tuesday’s letter.
Ogwyn said he’s hopeful that laws protecting sites of cultural and historic significance will force MDOT to make a serious effort to find the graves.
“The Federal Highway Administration would, I guess, be the final arbiter as to whether the project qualified for federal funding if it were to take a cemetery,” Ogwyn told the Enterprise-Journal.
Dupuy said he learned about the cemetery site from members of the Amite County Historial and Genealogical Society and from elderly neighbors.
“Those people told them (MDOT officials) that there was a graveyard there and they didn’t want to hear about it,” Dupuy said, noting the cemetery was reported to MDOT at public hearings years ago, as were possible Indian mounds nearby.
Dupuy said he believes MDOT routed the highway across his land to avoid land across the road where there are several tracts of property, including a residence that doubles as a daycare.
“I’m one man on this side to deal with. Over there you’ve got six or eight people,” he said.
MDOT officials maintained the agency is making a good-faith effort to find the graves. Right-of-way director Dan Smith said Ogwyn was notified by e-mail on Dec. 27 that the testing would take place from Tuesday to Friday or Saturday of this week.
MDOT location engineer Rhea Vincent, who was present at Tuesday’s survey, said he was surprised by the letter to the Attorney General.
“We thought we were on a good path and a good footing with this gentleman,” Vincent said. “We were trying to communicate with him. This letter came out and we were surprised.
“We’re simply trying to locate where the graves are.”
He said workers intentionally laid out an area bigger than that identified by the grave dowser.
“You may have a whole bunch more (graves) around it, and we’re simply trying to encompass that area to do that,” he said, noting that the process takes several days.
As for single vs. dual antenna, Vincent said MDOT is using two methods — ground-penetrating radar and magnetometer — to increase chances of finding graves. “I’m happy with what he (Haley) is doing,” he said.
Vincent said he hopes to resume the survey when Dupuy’s consultant can be present.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said. “We’re simply trying to pursue that (survey). We’ve got to find out what’s there.”
MDOT District Engineer Albert White said this morning that a compromise appears to be in the works.
“They’re trying to reschedule,” White said.