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Cohoes Residents File Intent To Sue Norlite Over Burning Firefighting Foam

The Norlite facility in Cohoes, NY.
Jackie Orchard
The Norlite facility in Cohoes, NY.

There have been major developments related to the Norlite Hazardous Waste Facility in Cohoes.
Legal action in the form of a Notice of Intent to sue in federal court is being taken on behalf of residents of Saratoga Sites, the public housing complex that sits directly beside the Norlite incinerator in Cohoes.

The facility has been under scrutiny for a contract to burn firefighting foam, which is linked to ill-health effects, for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck:

"This is a lawsuit to stop the pollution at Norlite. In particular to make sure that they never ever burn toxic firefighter foam again, but also looking at the damage that was caused from two years of burning. So attorney Phillip Oswald filed the lawsuit against Norlite, their parent company Tradebe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Procedurally what happens is you have to file something called a Notice of Intent to Sue letter. And then the environmental agencies have 90 days to respond. If the response is not adequate, the attorney then proceeds and files a lawsuit in federal court."

Syracuse University student Joseph Ritchie has called Saratoga Sites home for all of his 19 years. During a virtual town hall meeting Monday night, Ritchie said residents at the housing complex have faced environmental injustices for decades.

"Children can't enjoy the snow in the winter time because it has the black soot on it. You can literally see it after it snows, the snow becomes black. Our cars, if we wash them, the cars become black. If we go out and get the mail while they were burning consistently, you start gagging. It smells like all your worst chemicals being burnt into a bin."

The Norlite saga began last year when an activist in California submitted a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. Department of Defense asking if it shipped unused toxic fire fighter foam anywhere for disposal. By late February Norlite was found to be one of four sites in the country receiving firefighting foam marked for destruction.

A Bennington College water and soil study soon followed that found elevated levels of PFAS compounds at sites close to the Norlite plant. The report concluded that burning the foam did not destroy the chemicals but rather redistributed them into nearby neighborhoods

Also at the town hall meeting, Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler said since March he has been in contact with the DEC, government officials including Assemblyman John McDonald, Senator Neil Breslin and Governor Cuomo's office in an effort to stop Norlite from burning firefighter foam.

"We're back and forth with DEC. Probably in early March they provided a list indicating that two and a half million gallons of the firefighting foam had shipped from 25 states to Norlite Cohoes, and that most of it, as it turns out, had been incinerated.”

Keeler says additional meetings with DEC and the Department of Health touched on environmental and quality of life issues for Saratoga Sites residents.

"So in April, Cohoes passed a local law putting a one-year moratorium on incinerating AFFF in the city."

In May, Keeler learned 58,000 gallons of foam was en route to Cohoes for burning, resulting in more urgent cries to officials followed by legislation passed by the state Senate and Assembly that would prohibit incineration of the foam. The law was narrowly written to apply mainly to the Cohoes situation. It awaits the governor's signature.

Keeler says Norlite has canceled its contract with the Department of Defense while DEC announced an administrative ban on incinerating firefighting foam.

Enck says officials are apparently still trying to come up with a way to destroy the PFAS-laden foam.

"The DEC also said that they'll be working closely with the EPA to try to figure out how to do a test burn, to burn toxic firefighting foam at incinerators. They said they would not do the test burning in Norlite. But I don't think it's responsible for DEC to help the EPA to figure out how to test this in other states. So there is concern about what direction the state is going. It concerns me that they may be trying to figure out how to allow burning in the future. And I think Governor Cuomo needs to shut that down."

Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Norlite spokesman Prince Knight said: "As it appears these issues will be litigated, we are unable to offer any comment at this time at the direction of counsel."

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Chief of Staff Sean Mahar says the agency is "focused on science, not irresponsible rhetoric."

"our expert engineers and scientists are truly leading the nation in responding to PFAS and other emerging comntaminants. When it comes to excessive air emissions and disposal options, we need EPA and DOD to develop methods to test for these compounds in air emissions and identify options for safe disposal of these compounds in order to ensure the utmost protection of all New Yorkers. That's responsible regulation and why we took actions last week to further restrict incinceration of firefighting foam and emerging contaminants at the Norlite facility. We will continue to work with the Cohoes community and across the state to continue our leading efforts to address PFAS compounds in our environment."

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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