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Environmental Activists Warn Of New Threat From Cohoes’ Norlite Plant

Activists say they have identified a new health threat at the embattled Norlite facility in Cohoes.

Norlite has been the focus of public scrutiny over the past year after it emerged the plant was burning PFAS-laden firefighting foam for the U.S. Defense Department.

In November, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to ban such burning at the plant, which is located near the Saratoga Sites public housing project.

Credit Joe Ritchie
Saratoga Sites dust.

Now, activists say recent test results show dust particles that blow off Norlite's aggregate piles constantly accumulate on every surface at the housing complex across the street from the facility, and likely pose a significant health risk to local residents.

Joe Ritchie, executive director of Saratoga Sites Against Norlite Emissions, says silica dust laden with tiny glass shards accumulates daily on window sills, cars, and floors. Air conditioner filters are filled with dust and it turns the snow black.

"It's just very unsettling that people daily are breathing in glass, and they're being killed from the inside. There's no other way to say it."

Retired Columbia University geologist Dr. Dave Walker tested samples of Norlite aggregate Ritchie had sent him.

"We're dealing with a material, it's very much like volcanic glass. It's full of bubbles and full of glass shards. It has some mineral fragments embedded in it and the question is what volcano would possibly deliver this material to Saratoga Sites. Well of course there aren’t any local volcanoes. So we had to look to the Norlite aggregate."

Experts say the material can cause serious health problems, including silicosis, a progressive and usually fatal lung disease. Leonardo Trasande is with NYU School of Medicine.

"As a pediatrician I'll double down and emphasize that children breathe and more air per pound of body weight and thereby have greater exposure to these chemical contaminants that literally can chronically scar the lungs, having consequences. So it's fair to say that I have serious concerns about the consequences of the ongoing exposures."

Mark Pascale, who chairs the Cohoes Housing Authority, says Saratoga Sites should be shut down.

"I personally live about a half mile away from, from Norlite. And it's an outrage that this has been allowed to continue. And I can't ask enough, where is DEC in all this?"

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials responded to a request for comment via email, stating in part they are reviewing the information Dr. Walker shared and will deploy additional air monitoring equipment to the complex.

Norlite also responded via email, stating in part that it "operates under strict emissions permits issued by New York State and the U.S. EPA. The regulations are based on sound science and designed to protect public health and the environment. "

Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler’s office says the Democrat has “listened to community concerns dating back to February 2020, and has shared those concerns with state regulators repeatedly in the year since.”

An upcoming virtual public information meeting Feb. 3rd includes the comprehensive review of Norlite’s “Fugitive Dust Plan” and results of sampling in response to dust and soot complaints in November and December.

Full statements from DEC, Norlite and the mayor’s office are posted below.

Statement for attribution to NYS DEC:

The New York State Departments of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Health (DOH) are reviewing the information shared by Dr. Walker and continue to work with the community to investigate any health and environmental concerns. DEC continues to ratchet down on all aspects of the Norlite facility’s operations to address previous violations and emerging issues and shares the community’s concerns. Building upon our ongoing investigations and response into off-site particulate matter in the vicinity of Norlite, DEC will be deploying additional air monitoring equipment to Saratoga Sites to enhance our comprehensive data collection and analysis and hold this facility accountable.

All community complaints are critical to the State’s ongoing oversight and residents should contact DEC at (518) 357-2045 during regular business hours, and 1-800-457-7362 on nights, weekends and holidays to report concerns.

Norlite's response:

Norlite operates under strict emissions permits issued by New York State and the U.S. EPA. The regulations are based on sound science and designed to protect public health and the environment. The agencies confirm and enforce our compliance through regular inspections of our emissions-control equipment and data, which are accessible to regulatory personnel at all times. Norlite has invested heavily in state-of-the-science environmental control technology, and our people are committed to achieving excellence in our environmental performance every day. We will continue to rely on the guidance and oversight of New York State and the U.S. EPA, as well as our own commitment to environmental excellence for the benefit of our community, our workforce and our future in Cohoes.

Statement from Mayor Bill Keeler's office:

We are not scientists, therefore cannot speak to the specific analysis and claims made in Dr. Walker’s report and by others in today’s press conference. Those are questions more appropriately directed to Norlite and the regulators including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the NYS Department of Health (DOH).

However, since January 2020 Mayor Keeler has raised questions and concerns about what appears to be soot or dust particles, in some cases described as sticky materials, that residents find on their vehicles, porches, playground equipment, and other outdoor surfaces. He has listened to community concerns dating back to February 2020, and has shared those concerns with state regulators repeatedly in the year since.

In response to a request from the city in early November 2020, the DEC is undertaking a comprehensive review of the Fugitive Dust Control Plan for Norlite. And, at the city’s request, the DEC will be giving an update on that process at the February 3 virtual public information session, announced last week.

Starting well before today’s press conference the Mayor has specifically asked the DEC why the piles are not covered. And, again as recently as earlier this week, the City has asked if the DEC could conduct its own monitoring of fugitive dust, in addition to responding to citizen complaints.

The DEC has been responsive to the Mayor’s requests. These issues are long-standing, and have not been addressed on the time line that the Mayor would have hoped, but he will continue to raise concerns with the company and the regulators, as he did again today at a previously scheduled call with DEC on Norlite matters.

The bottom line is that the community deserves to know what, if any, health and environmental impacts there are from these materials people have seen on their property for years, and they deserve to know what specific steps will be taken to control the fugitive dust from Norlite.

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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