Crews excavating for a giant interstate natural gas pipeline have disturbed three archaeological sites - one that was eligible for national historic protection.

Although damage to the ancient Indian sites appears to be minimal, Utah environmentalists and archaeologists are upset that Kern River Gas Transmission Co. and its contractors were careless."We're very concerned," said Kevin Jones, assistant state archaeologist. "We don't like to see needless destruction of important archaeological sites."

But Cuba Wadlington, Kern River executive vice president, downplayed the incidents. In fact, he initially said that just one site was disturbed.

"We did get into a small corner of a site wherein there was no significant damage whatsoever," Wadlington said. "We have properly reported that to the agencies."

It was only after the Deseret News confronted Wadlington with specifics that he acknowledged there were two other archaeological sites disturbed by crews, but he said there was "no damage" at those sites.

All three sites are within a few miles of each other west of the Black Mountains in northern Iron County.

Since early January, crews have been excavating various segments of the pipeline route in southern Utah. The pipeline would run from Wyoming to Bakersfield, Calif., where the gas would be burned to create steam for extracting stubborn crude oil from the ground.

In accordance with federal and state laws, Kern River commissioned an archaeological study of the route, which heads southwest through the state from Morgan County to Washington County. The study, conducted by Dames & Moore, a cultural resource consulting firm, identified nearly 200 sites along the route. More than 100 would have to be crossed by the pipeline, said Jones.

The sites were supposed to have been "flagged" by Dames & Moore to prevent crews from crossing them until mitigation measures could be employed.

But Wadlington said the disturbed archaeological sites "had not been properly marked." The sites have since been barricaded, however, to prevent any further disturbance, he said.

On Feb. 2, a bulldozer operator, apparently misunderstanding directions from a Kern River official, cut a 3-meter-wide, 100-meter-long swath through "Site 1202," according to a Feb. 11 letter Dames & Moore sent to the Bureau of Land Management.

Site 1202, located on state-owned land, contains significant archaeological strata from the archaic to modern eras and is eligible for inclusion on the National Historic Register, said Jones.

On Oct. 7, Dames & Moore inspectors discovered that sites "1204" and "1174" had also beendamaged. Those sites also contain evidence of ancient Indians but are deemed of lesser value than Site 1202.

Dames & Moore inspectors said 45 percent of Site 1204 and 65 percent of Site 1174 had been bulldozed but concluded that no "cultural material" had been disturbed on the sites. Only 2 percent of Site 1202 was bulldozed, with inspectors finding only a fragment of an arrowhead in the excavated soil.

State archaeologists say they will conduct their own investigation of the disturbed sites next week.

"Even running a blade across a shallow swath can disrupt the distribution of archaeological materials on the surface," Jones said.

State archaeologist David Madsen praised Kern River for reporting the incidents quickly.

"Big screw ups like this happen . . . . But we want to find out if these guys are going to bull their way through hell or high water or if it was just an accident."

Madsen said he will require Kern River officials to show how they plan to prevent incidents like these from occurring again.

Meanwhile, environmentalist Ken Rait - who warned officials last fall that the "fast track" nature of the pipeline project could endanger Indian ruins - is asking the Division of State Lands and the Division of State History to conduct criminal investigations into the matter.

"This is outrageous and completely reprehensible," said Rait, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Rait believes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which certified the pipeline, is to blame because it has failed to enforce federal environmental and historical preservation laws.

But Wadlington said several state and federal agencies share the blame for the damage because they have delayed approval of Kern River's "historic properties treatment plans," which are designed to minimize disturbance to the sites.

"We need approval of those plans so that we don't jump around on the right of way," Wadlington said.