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DEC to begin search for oil contamination in Potsdam

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POTSDAM —The town and the state 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 last month 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.

DEC was called to assess the contamination and guide cleanup efforts. Depending on the extent of the contamination, cleaning it up could become more than just the town’s problem: it could involve other Market Street properties.

The first step is finding the source of the oil leak. Town leaders said they believe the oil came from a leaking tank buried beneath the sidewalk in front of 33 Market St. 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 said 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 had to be shut down temporarily.

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 W. Litwhiler said via email. “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 responsible for paying for cleanup. However, because of the age of the spill, the cost will probably fall to the town, especially if it hopes to finish renovations on the Town Court without going through lengthy legal proceedings.

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

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

The site is under renovation, and will be converted into 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,” Mrs. Regan said.

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

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

Market Street property owners may not have to worry just yet. Mrs. Regan said she doubts 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., agreed.

“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 have to be taken, according to Mr. Litwhiler.

DEC will begin its search within the next two weeks.

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