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Carnival chairman defends DEC on preparing Ice Palace site

The site of the Winter Carnival Ice Palace is in rough shape according to one organizer, after a major environmental remediation project took over the site for much of 2018. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

SARANAC LAKE — The Winter Carnival Committee chairman disputes the chief Ice Palace builder’s comment that the palace site was left in “horrible” shape after a Lake Flower dredging operation.

“The DEC did everything they could to make us happy,” committee Chairman Jeff Branch said of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which led the cleanup operation in 2018, scooping toxic silt from the bottom of Lake Flower’s Pontiac Bay. The silt had been contaminated by chemicals that seeped from a coal gasification plant on Payeville Lane in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Dean Baker, who oversees construction of the Carnival’s palace made of foot-thick ice blocks, told the Enterprise Thursday that the dredging operation “left horrible bulldozer ridges. It’s just a mess.”

Branch called the newspaper office Friday to defend the DEC.

“I don’t think Dean had any ill will,” he said, but added that he was more engaged with the department than Baker was, including two walk-throughs of the site, in September and October, plus phone calls and emails.

Branch said DEC officials asked what they could do to make sure the site was ready for the palace, and “we said the biggest thing would be to level the area more.” The slope of the lakeshore has always been an issue, he said, making the ground at one corner of the palace about 18 inches higher than at another corner.

“They said they would do what they could, and they did do what they could,” Branch said. “They helped us out and regraded it in that aspect.”

Also, he said, the DEC had planned to put a fence on the line between the village and state property, but didn’t after learning it would go right through the palace.

Plus, Branch said, when the Carnival Committee told the DEC that a portion of lakeshore had washed out where palace builders normally park an excavator, the department dealt with the problem in two days.

“They’ve been really responsive, and so I’m really upset that Dean said the things he said,” Branch said.

“I don’t think he knew about all the conversation I’ve had with DEC and all the things DEC has done for us.”

Branch conceded that the ground had gotten muddy. He said DEC had offered to reseed grass there, but the Carnival Committee said to wait until spring because the palace builders would just tear it up with their heavy equipment.

“They really went out of their way to make sure we were satisfied for Winter Carnival,” Branch said.

Baker said he had not meant to criticize the DEC specifically.

“I thought they were just overseeing the contractor,” he said.

“I was just saying it was in rough shape,” he added of the palace site. “It’s rough enough to where it would be very difficult to lay blocks flat on the ground. We’ll do everything we can. … Some heavy snow would help.”

On Friday, a village crew used a bucket loader to “back-blade” and flatten the frozen ground as much as possible.

“I was down there afterwards, and it was much better,” Baker said. “The village has very helpful. Anything we’ve asked the village to do, they’ve very graciously said they would.”

Village Manager John Sweeney was in on the DEC walk-throughs with Branch. He said “we knew the area would be wet due to the fresh soil,” but “we were all satisfied with the site.”

In an emailed statement, DEC Region 5 Director Robert Stegemann said, “Whenever environmental cleanups are necessary, DEC’s top priority is working with communities to ensure the area is properly restored and put back into productive use as quickly as possible. DEC worked closely with the village of Saranac Lake to undertake this cleanup and provide a cleaner environment that will benefit community residents, as well as local fish, wildlife, and plant populations. We also worked with the village and the Winter Carnival Committee to make sure the site was ready for the 2019 Winter Carnival. In response to their requests, we changed the final grade of the Ice Palace Parcel from two to one percent, changed the slope of the shoreline to facilitate removal of ice blocks, and ensured that the site was properly restored at the conclusion of construction activities.”

Winter Carnival begins on Feb. 1 with a theme of “Prehistoric Park” this year.