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Problems plague Potsdam Town Court reconstruction

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POTSDAM — Soil contaminated by a decades-old oil spill has been discovered in the basement of the former Town Hall at 35 Market Street, yet another safety hazard that has delayed the building’s renovation for use as the Town Court.

The contaminated soil was discovered about two weeks ago by workers preparing to build the new elevator shaft, Daniel Tebow, a Tisdel Associates Engineer, told the town board at a meeting Thursday.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been contacted to oversee investigation and cleanup of the contamination.

The DEC will require probes underneath the sidewalk to determine the source of the oil and extent of the problem.

Town leaders believe the contamination was caused by an oil tank that used to be buried under Market Street, which was found leaking in 1972 and later removed.

Once the source is found cleanup can start.

“We want to find the highest source of the oil and remove it so it doesn’t continue to leak further,” Mr. Tebow said.

Whoever is responsible for the initial spill will be responsible for the cost of cleanup and mitigation, according to DEC regulations

Town leaders are working with Mr. Tebow to find ways to remove or contain the oil to avoid health and safety risks caused by vapors building up beneath the basement floor.

Complete cleanup of all of the affected soil in the basement of 35 Market Street is impossible, according to Mr. Tebow. The contamination is spread across the entire area, and removing it all would likely cause the building to collapse.

Mr. Tebow proposed creating a series of pipes underneath the basement floor, along with a fan to disperse the dangerous fumes.

“I don’t like this option at all,” said town Supervisor Marie C. Regan, citing the need for a fan running 24 hours a day as too expensive and ineffective.

A third option includes redoing the basement floor with two layers of concrete, with a membrane in between to prevent vapors from entering the building.

The discovery of the oil leak is only the latest in a string of hazards and setbacks found during the extensive renovation at 35 Market Street, which began this summer to convert the building into a larger Town Court as a new Town Hall is constructed at 18 Elm St.

Over the course of demolition and construction, asbestos has been found in four locations, all of which had to be removed. It would have been impossible to find this asbestos before construction began, because the building was still in use and a full search could not be done, Mr. Tebow said.

Last Friday a leaking gas pipe was found leading to the boiler.

The building served as both the court and town offices until this March, when officials moved to a temporary location at 12 Elm St. as renovation began. Some groups contested the work on 35 Market St., citing the site’s historical significance, but Ms. Regan said the numerous safety problems found over the last few months are proof that the work was needed.

“It’s a wonder we didn’t go up in flames,” she said.

The town has paid about $28,000 more than expected for the renovation so far, thanks to the numerous unexpected safety hazards. It is still unknown how much it will cost to mitigate the contaminated basement soil. However, the town had set aside several hundred thousand dollars for construction in case of setbacks, so the additional costs will not be damaging to the budget, Ms. Regan said.

The site was supposed to be completed by the end of the year, but delays have made this goal impossible. Demolition is nearly complete and construction is about halfway done, and will continue as the oil spill is investigated and dealt with, according to Mr. Tebow.

“We’re still on target for about the middle of January,” he said.

Construction of the new Town Hall on 18 Elm St. continues according to schedule.

In other business, the board unanimously approved the adoption of the 2013 town budget.

The budget will not increase taxes. Most town services will receive the same level of funding as in 2012, with some receiving a slight increase.

Ms. Regan said a small growth in the town’s tax base allowed the town to maintain its tax level, despite rising costs to retirement benefits and the recreation fund.

A public hearing was held before the vote to receive feedback on the budget, but no members of the public were present to comment.

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