Whistleblower alleges wrongdoing at James River site

A whistleblower alleged that he observed “unethical” practices during recent archeological work at the location where Louisa County hopes to build a water pump station near the banks of the James River.

In a statement sent to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Eric Mai said he participated in an archeological dig at the site from May 2017 to January 2018 while employed by Circa Cultural Resource Management. He said Circa hired inexperienced staff, used minimal technology to save money and reported misleading information about the artifacts that were found. 

The Monacan Indian Nation claims Rassawek, their former capital, was located in the area where Louisa and Fluvanna County want to build a pump station, working through the James River Water Authority. The area is also known as Point of Fork, given its proximity to the James and Rivanna rivers.

“My intent is to report an urgent concern about what I believe to be illegal, unethical, unprofessional and unscientific practices by Circa in its work generally and at Point of Fork specifically,” Mai wrote. 

Justin Curtis, an attorney for the James River Water Authority, declined to comment about Mai’s allegations. He said the authority received a copy of the statement on Oct. 21. 

The director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources previously accused Carol Tyrer, the Williamsburg-based company’s principal, of claiming she had a master’s degree in archeology when she actually has a degree in another field. The Monacans have said for the past year that Circa used improper archeological procedures, but Mai’s statement provides more detail than was previously divulged.

Circa was tapped as a subcontractor to Timmons Group, which the authority hired to manage construction of a pump station and pipeline to bring raw water to Ferncliff.

Mai said he worked for Circa for six years, and that the problems he saw on the James River site were similar to what he observed on other projects he was involved with for the company. He said he had urged Tyrer in the past to invest in mapping technologies such as GPS to ensure accurate data, but she resisted, citing the cost.

“Because of this mapping deficit, there were several times on the project when we conducted shovel test pits in the wrong location, well outside of the project area targeted for construction,” he said. Some maps created for the water authority by Timmons may be of questionable value, he added, because they were based on data that Circa collected.

Mai completed a master’s degree in archeology in 2017, according to his statement and resume. In October 2017, the Department of Historic Resources sent Tyrer a letter chiding her for not supervising work at the James River site directly. 

“Soon thereafter, Joe Hines, project lead for Timmons, came to the site and asked me about my professional and academic credentials,” Mai wrote. “Tyrer then instructed me to send her my resume. [She] suggested that she might forward my resume to VDHR.”

After Mai left Circa, he obtained a copy of the resume Tyrer had given to state officials. The document was different from the one Mai had provided. He said it mischaracterized him as a supervisor when Tyrer had never given him that role, and exaggerated his experience working on Native American archeological sites.

Other workers at the James River site lacked college degrees or formal training investigating Native American sites, Mai said. At one point, he said, Tyrer used workers from Faulconer Construction, the contractor in charge of building the pump station and pipeline, to participate in archeological work, even though they had no experience in that field and used inappropriate tools for the job. He was told the workers were paid for this work by Faulconer, not Circa.

The report Tyrer submitted to DHR in the spring of 2018 about work Mai and other crew members performed at the project site was misleading, he said, because some Native American artifacts that were found were not accounted for in the report. These artifacts provided evidence of cooking and stone tool production. Mai added that while Circa claimed it used specified methods to analyze artifacts, he did not believe the company had actually done so. The person in charge of processing the artifacts was not qualified for the work, he said.

After DHR sent the water authority a letter indicating the agency will no longer accept Tyrer as the lead archeologist for the project, the authority hired a different firm, GAI Consultants, to review her work. The authority also sent a notice to Jule Langan, DHR director, appealing her denial of a burial permit because of Tyrer’s lack of qualifications. Langan has said her agency did not actually deny the permit.

The appeal would be filed in Fluvanna Circuit Court, but Curtis said the authority has until next week to decide whether to do so.