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Activists, Officials Monitoring Norlite Plant In Cohoes

William Keeler
William Keeler
Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler

Concerns remain over environmental pollution from burning toxic materials at the Norlite site in Cohoes.
In mid-February, Mayor Bill Keeler found out that toxic materials were going to be burned in the two large kilns at the Norlite plant, and environmental advocates and groups got involved, filing a lawsuit to prohibit the incineration of AFFF (firefighting foam) at the Cohoes facility. Norlite has a contract with the Navy to dispose of the foam.

As the news spread, the city council passed a one-year moratorium prohibiting incineration of the foam anywhere in town, while Keeler began talking with state officials including fellow Democrat state Assemblyman John McDonald, a former Cohoes mayor.

"I immediately reached out to Norlite's president and said 'what are you guys doing?" And you know they sincerely believe that thehy've got the magic solution to brin this item, which I have to underscore, firefighters use to put out fires. Not easy to burn firefighter foam."

Former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck says she learned from a Wall Street Journal article that Norlite in Cohoes had become the epicenter for toxic firefighter being burned in the United States.

"The reporting informed us that more than 2 million pounds of toxic firefighter foam containing PFAS chemicals came to Norlite in 2018 and 2019 from 25 different states, including from 60 military sites. I continue to have tremendous concern about the health impact."

McDonald shares that concern.

"If anybody who knows where Hoosick Falls is, knows exactly what PFOA is all about and PFOS. "

"The little city of Cohoes needs backup and one of the best things that could happen here is Assemblymember John McDonald and Senator Neil Breslin have introduced state bills that would ban the burning of toxic firefighting from anywhere in the state. When the New York state legislature reconvenes next week. It is imperative that they pass this bill into law."

McDonald notes there is no clear guiance on how to regulate AFFF.

"Even if we pass the bill tomorrow or if we pass the bill at the end of June or we pass the bill in September, the governor's not obligated look at the bill till the end of the year. So I'm very happy that the city of goes went ahead with the moratorium. I appreciate Mayor Keeler working closely with us. I also appreciate the work of Congressman Tonko, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Schumer who have been doing their part at the federal level."

Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer sent a letter to Navy Secretary James McPherson and followed up with a phone call, requesting to stop any shipments of PFAS-laden firefighting foam to the Norlite facility, after reports surfaced that nearly 60,000 gallons were en route to Cohoes for incineration. According to the Times Union, the Navy then decided to suspend the shipments.

McDonald and Enck are particularly troubled by emanations from the smokestacks considering their proximity to the Saratoga Sites apartments, a federal low-income housing project. Well before the alarm was sounded, Keeler had been putting a plan together to move residents to safer ground.

"We pretty much have to move 70 families at the same time. So there is an existing housing stock in Cohoes, but it would, you know, we'd get into this Section 8 issue. At the same time, there are several projects, private developers, that are coming online with their projects, and they have maybe 20% of the apartments set aside for low income. So we're rying to tie the timing of the closure of Saratoga Sites so that we could move these people into these new apartments. The problem is, that there is as I speak, a list 2000 people long waiting to get into just the apartments, the three Federal housing apartment complexes in Cohoes."

Enck notes the EPA announced Thursday that it fined Norlite $150,000 for past violations of federal environmental laws.

"This has everything to do with Norlite exceeding its Federal Clean Air Act permit, which is necessary to control emissions of dioxins. There appear to be major problems at the facility, which affected its ability to control emissions of hydrogen chloride, chlorine gas and particulate matter. I'm very happy that the EPA reached this agreement with Norlite but very disappointed that the fine was a mere $150,000 for past violations. That is not enough financial incentive to get Norlite to stop poisoning this community."

Norlite did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WAMC.

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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