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Mercury Pollution Adds To Concerns Involving Norlite Plant In Cohoes

The Norlite facility in Cohoes, NY.
Jackie Orchard

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation held a four-hour meeting online Wednesday evening to speak with Cohoes residents about the Norlite incinerator, the subject of ongoing environmental concerns.

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.

Click on image to enlarge.

Concerns mounted at the end of January, when activists said recent test results show tiny particles described as "silica dust laden with tiny glass shards" blow off Norlite's aggregate piles, constantly accumulating on every surface at the housing complex across the street from the facility, and likely pose a significant health risk to residents.

During Wednesday night's session, DEC Regional Air Pollution Control Engineer Ben Potter talked at length about "fugitive dust issues" and an existing "fugitive dust plan" which is currently being updated. He also mentioned that mercury is one of the toxins emitted by Norlite smokestacks.

“The New York State mercury emission compliance is more stringent than EPA’s. New York State looks at, we have a toxic, a toxic regulation. And we limit all facilities to a certain amount of mercury allowed to be coming out. When you look at the 120 microgram per dry standard cubic meter, the EPA standard, what that equates to is approximately 170 pounds per year total coming out of the stacks.”

"50 pounds of airborne mercury every year from Norlite is very troubling." ~ Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck

Potter noted that New York State limits mercury further to around 50 pounds of mercury coming out, a fact that doesn't sit well with former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck:

“When you take a step back and think about this, 50 pounds of airborne mercury every year from Norlite is very troubling. It takes just a tablespoon of mercury to contaminate a large Adirondack lake and make the fish inedible. Mercury is a heavy metal, which is a neurotoxin, and it's extremely concerning that you have families living just a few 100 yards from Norlite and DEC is sanctioning over 50 pounds of mercury to be emitted into the air every single year.”

The USGS says mercury, which is extremely poisonous, is released through the natural weathering of rock and/or volcanic activity. Retired Columbia University geologist Dr. Dave Walker noted last month that volcanoes also produce volcanic glass. He found similar material when he tested samples of Norlite aggregate.

"It's full of bubbles and full of glass shards. It has some mineral fragments embedded in it."

Some activists have called for the aggregate piles to be covered.

A webinar caller who did not identify himself said his experiences with "fugitive dust" from Norlite invading his home go back several decades:

"I want somebody from DEC to come over here and take tests out of my attic." Officials told him they appreciate his complaints and they are trying to pinpoint exactly the sources of the dust. Enck, who says she found the marathon session frustrating, is glad the discovery of PFAS chemicals ignited discussions, but thinks the aggregate piles should be covered.

"But they're not. I mean, PFAS was complicated. I think DEC really screwed it up. But people breathing in, essentially sand particulate matter with sharp glass in it. Pretty basic. And so I think the agency lost some real credibility by not having a specific plan on what they were going to do to protect people's health to just say 'we're studying it.'"

Norlite did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mayor Bill Keeler was a webinar participant and said he will continue to work with Cohoes Housing Authority, DEC and Norlite officials to eliminate any adverse health and safety issues affecting residents.

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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