color photograph of an archaeologist on their hands and knees digging on a flat grey stone surface. red lines of string create a square border around them, and two red plastic buckets are on either side of the archaeologist
MIAMI, FL - MAY 10: Archaeologist Raymond Skinner, with the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, works on excavating a site where the conservancy found evidence that a Tequesta Indian village once stood on the site which would have been at the mouth of the Miami River on May 10, 2013, in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

More archaeologists from an ancient Tequesta site in the Brickell neighborhood of Miami are coming forward with complaints and concerns they had while working on the site. The site is the former location of Standard Oil refinery tanks, and the possible presence of harmful chemicals like cancer-causing benzene have been cause for concern and questions. As a result, the archaeologists were required to take a health and safety training course, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stopped the digging at the site twice to conduct tests.

In addition to the health concerns around the archaeological dig, locals have been fighting to preserve the site. Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board voted unanimously in July to approve temporary protection for a portion of the Tequesta site, where luxury real estate development has boomed in the last decade. The board approved the preliminary designation of the 444 Brickell Ave. site as a protected archaeological site, but the area is just one piece of a larger property on the Miami River set to be developed by Related Group. 

On April 4, the city approved the development of two Related Group proposed towers at the adjacent 77 SE 5th St site.—where workers have filed three separate OSHA complaints. Two of the OSHA complaints have been filed against PaleoWest, LLC, a contract archaeology firm. The other complaint is against Related Group, which owns and is developing the site. The investigations are open and ongoing. 

In a statement, a representative from PaleoWest (now called Chronicle Heritage) said they have finished their work on the site and are no longer involved. 

“Our team’s health and safety is the highest priority, and we take every necessary precaution to protect our team members from any known hazards of any type,” they wrote in an email statement.

Related Group did not respond to multiple attempts for comment on the OSHA complaints and the allegations raised.

During a Sept. 5 Historic and Environmental Preservation board meeting, city archaeologist Adrian Espinosa-Valdor and a Related Group representative said the 77 SE 5th St. location has taken longer than expected to complete due to being “affected by oil contaminants.” 

According to a Soil Sampling Summary Report from 2021, total recoverable petroleum hydrocarbons (TRPH), arsenic, barium, lead, mercury, and benzopyrene were found above the state’s residential criteria. NV5, the company that completed the sampling report, recommended that additional sampling be evaluated in three areas where TRPH or benzopyrene were detected above the residential criteria. The report also recommends an evaluation of the various engineering controls that could be utilized in these areas, such as improving airflow and limiting work.

“You love what you do, but you don’t love how you’re treated while doing it”

Sheryl, an archaeologist who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, began working on the Tequesta site in October 2022 for PaleoWest and stayed there for about six weeks. She remembers being told PaleoWest would provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) but received no briefings on the specific health and safety concerns surrounding this particular excavation. She said she wasn’t aware of the site’s previous history as an oil refinery. 

“You could smell it as you walk by … They were saturated in oil,” she said. “I could smell the oil 20 feet away. I watched a person pass out in front of me after handling one of [the contaminated buckets]. It was concerning.”

Sheryl said they were given the option to dig in the highly contaminated western block. Sheryl chose not to but said she was still affected by the fumes. By the end of the day, she says she felt lightheaded, and when she bit her nails, she could taste the oil on her fingers.

“They smelled like petroleum,” she said. “I’d go home, and they were black. I’d thrown up in the morning a couple of times because of how bad my stomach was.”

Around the same time, Sheryl says multiple workers on the site started to have diarrhea, which is a symptom of arsenic poisoning. During a routine morning meeting, Sheryl says their supervisors told them to eat more fiber because the bathrooms were “so bad.”

“How about we get away from all of the oil?” Sheryl said.

Sheryl left the site that November before managers instructed archaeologists to get bloodwork done due to the soil toxicology report findings, but she was concerned and had her own independent blood test. The test found trace amounts of arsenic and benzene in her blood.

“I never felt pressured to work in an unsafe environment, but I also didn’t feel protected from the unsafe environment,” she said.

Sheryl said the conditions were uniquely bad during this dig, and other archaeologists have said the dynamic between Related and PaleoWest was not usual. Sheryl says she worked six days with one day off a week, from 7:30 a.m. until about 4 p.m., with half days on Saturdays. According to Sheryl, managers had an office that looked down onto the site.

“They were watching us eight hours a day, six days a week,” Sheryl said. “We would be told we’re not working quick enough, even though we’re being put in unsafe working conditions. It was extremely discouraging … I [was] being paid $21 an hour to be a pawn at that point.”

The archaeology industry is notorious for having few workplace protections and being union-adverse. Archaeologists say it is a passion-driven career with little stability since archaeologists are sent on multiple projects throughout the year and not always through the same organization or company. Additionally, Sheryl notes that blacklisting and retaliation run rampant in the industry and that upsetting the wrong person could mean losing all future job prospects. 

In 1990, the United Archaeological Field Technicians (UAFT) union was conceived for pipeline mitigation jobs in New York, Connecticut, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington. The organization was formally launched in 1991 from its first headquarters in Palouse, Washington, where it operated until it moved to Weirton, West Virginia, in 1993. In 1995, The UAFT created an association with the International Union of Operating Engineers of the AFL-CIO, as their Local Union 141. In 1998, the UAFT helped unionize the archaeological technician employees of Greenhorne & O’Mara, Inc., located in Greenbelt, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. However, little is known about what UAFT has accomplished in the decades after, and its website has not been updated in more than a decade.

“You’re not protected at all. You can be fired for absolutely nothing, you could be harassed, and nothing will happen to that person,” Sheryl said. “What’s crazy, though, is that all archaeologists are psychopaths. Because I’ll go back, I’ll do [the work] because it’s fun, and you’re proud of your work; you’re proud of what you take out of the ground because you’re the first person to see it in 300, 400, 500 years, 1,000 years, 2,000 years—and you feel connected to the people that were once there and trying to tell their story … You love what you do, but you don’t love how you’re treated while doing it.”

George, a heavy machine operator who requested to use a pseudonym, worked to open the ground on the 444 Brickell site in 2022. George said he was exposed to suspiciously smelling chemicals when he was moving the material with a front-end loader. He said he felt nauseated and grew concerned that he would vomit. He spoke to his supervisor, who suggested he file a workers’ compensation report.

“The workman’s comp … they don’t take care of anything,” George said.

George was sent to do two additional bloodwork and urine tests over the span of four months after his initial test results prompted him to file the report. He said the test results found high amounts of titanium, rubidium, molybdenum, thallium, tungsten, strontium, aluminum, and platinum.

Meredith, another archaeologist who requested to use a pseudonym, began working on the site for the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in August 2021 and quit after about six months. She said it was difficult to find information about the location’s history and that workers did not receive any gloves or face coverings. 

“It’s like [Related and AHC] were trying to hide the negative aspects of the site to try and push through it as fast as possible,” she said. 

In November 2021, Meredith said the aforementioned soil toxicology report was shared with workers. During her time, she says she witnessed Related Group supervisors attempt to steal artifacts from the drying table.

“They don’t understand the concept that these are all very sacred,” Meredith said. “And they do not belong to us, they belong to the Native Americans, the Tequesta Tribe who aren’t here anymore, so we’re leaving it to the Seminoles and Miccosukee, and the other Native American tribes that are in Florida.”

Regarding working conditions, Meredith agrees with Sheryl that they did not show care or consideration for the well-being of the archaeologists. She said the eyewash station included a squeeze bottle that was left out in the sun, making the solution so hot that it would burn people’s eyes.

“They [kept] pushing and pushing and pushing us to get things done as fast as possible,” she said.

Meredith said she had to hang off of the flat limestone and put her head inside of the aquifer holes to dig out the dirt with a long spoon. On one occasion, she had to jump into what she calls a “pool of oil and water” to retrieve an artifact while barefoot.

“I cannot tell you how many times I needed to take breaks from that,” she said. “It was not fun, and it was messy, and I knew that it wasn’t a smart thing to do, but I was told I needed to do it. So I did it because I was just following my job and my boss and what he asked me to do.”

Meredith said she was heavily fatigued every day after work. She shared her concerns with her managers, but she says she was ignored. AHC did not respond to Prism’s request for comment. 

“They said if you don’t feel safe, bring something you can wear that makes you feel safer,” she said. “I’m just waiting for there to be a class-action lawsuit, and I’ll jump in on it.”

AHC had her complete three heavy metal tests; one of the tests found high levels of lithium, manganese, platinum, mercury, uranium, and thorium in her blood. According to Meredith, her manager told her she was “overreacting.” By spring of 2022, she quit because she did not want to risk her health anymore. 

“This site is very special”

The project has spanned more than two years and uncovered more than 1 million artifacts dating back more than 2,500 years to a Tequesta marketplace. 

Commonwealth Heritage Group, Tetra Tech, and Search Inc. were also present conducting archaeological work on the site. By August 2021, they were already considering the site as a phase-III level of archaeological study. Phase I refers to a site where archaeologists do a surface-level investigation and no digging to first determine if there is anything worth digging for. Phase II involves digging a 100-by-100-centimeter block in the dirt to find more cultural material in a small area. Phase III, which is what the Miami site has quickly turned into, is when there is a large area with a significant number of artifacts.

Archaeologists discovered artifacts, including 7,000-year-old spearheads, stone points from the Archaic period, nets and twine made of plant fiber, and a wooden device used to start fires. Human remains were also discovered, including teeth and a gravesite with skeletal fragments. Animal remains of fish, reptiles, deer, a now-extinct Caribbean monk seal, and a megalodon tooth were also a part of the discovery, painting a vibrant picture of a thriving Indigenous community that long predates Miami’s present. 

South Florida’s Indigenous community has advocated for preserving the site. Miami’s Miccosukee, Taino, and Seminole communities say preserving the site is essential to respecting past and present Indigenous communities.

Related Group is required to preserve a portion of the 444 Brickell Ave. site and exhibit the artifacts in a public space while highlighting their archaeological and historical significance. 

“This site is very special,” Meredith said. “It is so dense with material that we never thought we would find in the Southeast.”

Meredith suggests that unionizing in archaeology would be difficult because of how disparate the field is, but that perhaps for sites as unique and special as Miami’s with so many different companies and organizations involved, an archaeologists’ union would be beneficial.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...