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Gov. Cuomo Signs “Norlite” Bill Banning Burning PFAS-Laden Firefighting Foam

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

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill banning the burning of aqueous film forming foam containing PFAS chemicals in cities designated Environmental Justice areas. The new law is tailored specifically for Cohoes.The bill passed the legislature this year after local leaders learned the foam was being burned as part of a Department of Defense contract at Norlite in Cohoes, not far from public housing.

The bill is specifically aimed at the small Albany County city. Former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck says the governor "did the right thing."

"We can breathe a little bit easier, our work certainly is not done. But knowing that Norlite can no longer burn this foam, which contains PFAS chemicals, which is very toxic to the human body and ecology, it's the same class of chemicals that was found in the Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh and Newburgh drinking water supply."

Foam containing PFAS was burned at the Spindle City’s Norlite plant, which is near the Saratoga Sites housing. Democratic Mayor Bill Keeler lauded what he called Governor Cuomo’s leadership on environmental safety and his commitment to environmental justice.

"I can certainly appreciate the governor signing it, I certainly appreciate all the efforts of Assemblyman John McDonald, Senator Neil Breslin. And you know our vehicle was the firefighting foam, hazardous burning, hazardous waste burning facility, that's a separate matter. We talked about the problem with Saratoga Sites, the housing project which is in the shadows of Norlite, which is a related but separate issue. We've been working since January with a congressional delegation to see what we could do about moving those folks to a better location."

Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been linked to ill health effects including cancer. The Department of Environmental Conservation ordered Norlite to cease the process in 2019.

McDonald, a Democrat and former Cohoes mayor, co-authored the bill, which he notes was written based on the city's population as documented by the last census.

"The truth of the matter is, there's no other facility like this in the state of New York. So, in essence, this legislation, although it's zoned on a community like Cohoes with that kind of population, it really has the impact of being a statewide ban."

Enck says new law aside, the fight is far from over.

"We had to really work hard to get to the bottom of the situation, because Norlite secretly burned to this and no one in government told the public, including the local mayor. So we learned that in 2018 and 2019, Norlite secretly burned over 2 million pounds of toxic firefighting foam. It was a long struggle to get where we are today, where we now have a legal prohibition on burning this, with tremendous gratitude to the governor and Assemblymember McDonald and Senator Breslin. However, this is just the beginning. Norlite imports, large amounts of liquid hazardous waste from all over the country. They have a long history of violating environmental laws as recently as this past May, the Trump EPA hit them with I think, too modest a penalty but still a significant showing of environmental violations at Norlite."

Enck says the company will likely continue to burn industrial solvents and various types of hazardous waste. She adds "it's obvious that Norlite can't effectively run its incinerator," so environmentalists are shifting focus toward "the rest of the operation."

Norlite responded to a request for comment via email, stating "Regarding AFFF, Norlite voluntarily ceased burning AFFF in December 2019. We have not sought permission to burn AFFF since that time, nor were we interested in continuing the incineration of AFFF."

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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