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Concern Ramps Up Over Norlite Kiln

Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler speaking Feb. 25, 2020.
Jackie Orchard
Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler speaking Feb. 25, 2020.


Environmental groups, community activists and elected officials are ramping up concern over potentially dangerous burning in the city of Cohoes.

The Norlite saga began months ago when an activist in California submitted a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. Department of Defense asking if the it shipped unused toxic fire fighter foam anywhere for disposal.

Former EPA Regional Administrator and regular WAMC Roundtable panelist Judith Enck says the burning would likely have been completely overlooked if not for the persistence of The Sierra Club.  " They were very slow in responding, but eventually answered the Freedom of Information request. And it provided documentation that this very toxic firefighter foam was being burned at four hazardous waste incinerators, or in the case of Norlite, an aggregate kiln in the United States."

A 26-page legal complaint was filed February 20th in federal court, saying the Norlite incinerator on Saratoga Street in Cohoes was burning stockpiled old firefighting foam laden with toxic PFOS for the Department of Defense and other parties.    "The military had been stockpiling this very toxic material until they could find a safe disposal route. The Trump administration comes in, very lax on environmental and public health potential protections. So the military signs these contracts, thinking let's get rid of as much of the stuff as we can, because the Trump administration really is not going to care about the environmental impacts. And so the military actually violated the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, is the allegation in the federal lawsuit that I was involved in announcing just over a week ago. It's against the military but also Norlite and the other incinerator companies. They should know better than to accept this material, particularly when there's been absolutely no environmental review done."

Enck contends that by going forward and burning the toxic material, Norlite, the other incinerator companies and the Department of Defense all violated federal law.

Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler met with officials from Norlite and briefed reporters Feb. 28.   “I think I speak for everybody when I say we have a lot more questions than answers at this point.” Keeler called for a moratorium on the burning until it can be determined that burning "can be done at acceptable levels."

Fellow Democrats U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand got wind of the Norlite story, announcing Wednesday they had written to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, demanding that the DoD immediately suspend all incineration of PFAS at Norlite and throughout the country.

The DOD Press Office responded to a request for comment by email, saying it would “respond directly to the authors of the letter.”

Meantime, 108th District state Assemblyman John McDonald, a former Cohoes mayor who was at Keeler's side during Tuesday’s developments, worries about the health and safety of the approximately 150,000 people living in communities surrounding Cohoes.  "I recognize the fact that it's important that there be a safe disposal method for these chemicals, which are unregulated right now."

McDonald says he and fellow Democrat State Senator Neil Breslin will announce new legislation Monday aimed at the Norlite situation.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is conducting studies to determine if Norlite is violating any regulatory requirements. Norlite did not respond to a request for comment.


Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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