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DEC to begin search for oil contamination in Potsdam

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POTSDAM - The town and the Department of Environmental Conservation are trying to determine the severity of oil contamination found at the former town hall at 35 Market St., but so far there are more questions than answers.

The oil-contaminated soil was found by workers installing an elevator shaft in the basement of the building. Early testing showed that the contamination was spread throughout the basement, but most strongly in the front corner near 33 Market St.

“Every area where we dug in the basement showed some sign of contamination,” Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation was called to assess the contamination and guide cleanup efforts.

The first step is finding the source of the oil leak. Town leaders believe the oil came from a leaking tank buried beneath the sidewalk in front of 33 Market Street. The problem was discovered in 1972, and the town board requested the owners drain the tank and remove it. It is not certain whether it was ever removed, although town leaders believe it probably was.

A news report from the Daily Courier-Observer from May 17, 1972 describes oil fumes so strong that offices on the bottom floor of the town hall needed to be temporarily shut down.

The DEC’s first priority is ensuring the tank has been removed, and cleaning up the source of the spill.

“They will be using ground-penetrating radar to see if there is a tank,” DEC spokesman Stephen Litwhiler said via e-mail. “It’s critical to remove any possible source of contamination before they continue their project. We will then work with the town to address cleanup of the contamination.”

Officially, the person or persons responsible for the spill are also responsible for paying for cleanup. However, because of the age of the spill, the town will likely end up footing the bill, especially if it hopes to finish renovations on the town court without going through lengthy legal proceedings.

The oil tank belonged to Leonard Temaris, who died in 2008.

“If we want this to get done, and in a timely fashion, I suspect we’re going to be the one footing the bill,” Ms. Regan said.

The site is under renovation, and will be converted to the new town court. It is slated for completion in January.

Plenty of big questions will remain unanswered until the source of the contamination is found and its severity determined. It is too early to estimate how much cleanup will cost, or how it will be done.

“That’s very worrisome of course,” Ms. Regan said.

How the testing will impact neighboring buildings on Market Street is also uncertain, but Ms. Regan said she suspects the contamination is not limited to the former town hall.

“I suspect that there is more than just our building,” Ms. Regan said.

Market Street property owners may not need to worry just yet. Ms. Regan says she doubts the DEC will focus on neighboring properties once the source of the spill has been determined and cleaned. Daniel M. Tebo, a Tisdel Associates engineer who is overseeing the renovation of 35 Market St., agrees.

“I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think the DEC will make people continue taking soil samples all the way down the street,” he said, “but it depends on what is found under the sidewalk.”

If neighboring properties are inspected and found to be contaminated, cleanup steps will need to be taken, according to Mr. Litwhiler.

The DEC will begin its search within the next two weeks.

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