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Investigation continues in national park line digging

November 23, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Three federal agencies continue to look into a local utility company's decision to lay about 2,000 feet of water and sewer lines across property owned by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, a park spokeswoman said.

In late August, Jefferson Utilities laid the utility lines in the School House Ridge area along U.S. 340 to serve about 179 houses in the Sheridan housing development, officials said.

An attorney for Jefferson Utilities said his client had the right to install the lines, but the work raised objections from Civil War and national park organizations.

Marsha Wassel, spokeswoman for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said Wednesday that the park continues to stand behind a statement from the National Park Service's headquarters that is posted on the park's Web site.

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In the statement, the National Park Service said it is "extremely concerned about the excavations and related actions that occurred over the August 19th weekend at Perry Orchard, a part of the School House Ridge battlefield area of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. While the National Park Service respects the property rights of the easement holders, the courts have recognized that the Park Service must ensure that construction within the boundaries of units of the National Park System occurs in a manner that protects the cultural and natural resources owned by all Americans, as well as the safety of park visitors," the statement said.

Wassel said the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Justice Department are looking into the matter.

"It's not being dropped by any means. It's just that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes investigation going on," Wassel said.

Charles Town Attorney J. Michael Cassell, who is representing Jefferson Utilities, said Wednesday that the utility line work did not harm any natural resources.

"Other than that, we have no comment since the federal government is continuing its investigation," Cassell said.

During the weekend that the construction occurred, the work continued until 10 p.m. one night and a local resident said she believed it was done because it was believed that park rangers would be preoccupied with the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Movement in the park that was going on at the same time.

After the work was completed, Cassell outlined legal documents that he believes gave Jefferson Utilities the right to lay the lines.

Cassell referred to documents in the Jefferson County Clerk's Office, including an easement agreement that allowed Jefferson Utilities to "excavate for, lay (and) install" water and sewer lines in the School House Ridge area of the park.

Although the easement agreement was drawn up between the former owner of the property and Jefferson Utilities, the rights were conveyed to Jefferson Utilities when the land was later acquired by the National Park Service, Cassell said.

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