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As Norlite And Its Parent Face Suit, Activist Scientists Dispute Latest NYSDEC Report

The Saratoga Sites public housing neighborhood in Cohoes.
Jackie Orchard
The Saratoga Sites public housing neighborhood in Cohoes.

Activists are challenging a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation report that finds no clear connection between the Norlite plant in Cohoes and PFAS contamination of the area.

The 450-page study of PFAS and metals, conducted in response to continuing community concerns about the potential impact of Norlite's burning of firefighting foam, found no clear link to Norlite's operations and no indication of any risk to human health. Dr. David Bond is a scientist and professor at Bennington College.

"It's not that the data is wrong. The data actually really helps us understand the situation around Norlite. But the interpretation raises serious questions that undermines the confidence we might have. DEC's conclusions far exceed the data they provide. And I see this as largely happening along three areas. One, DEC's own data identifies worrisome patterns of contaminated soil downwind, and in the immediate vicinity of Norlite. Patterns that may suggest possible airborne deposition. And DEC's conclusion sort of goes directly against the grain of its own data on this question, and it says there's no link and no indication of human health risks. But the data that DEC provides does find, in some ways, worrisome patterns of contaminated soil downwind, including with heavy metals, like lead and mercury, and with some perfluorinated compounds associated with a AFFF like PFOS."

Bond says the DEC did not do a “total organic carbon analysis” of its soil samples. He argues that DEC's review neglected standard scientific practices when investigating PFAS levels in soil, and that DEC uses a questionable strategy of presenting background levels, which, in his opinion, "seems to mask the elevated levels of PFOS found around Norlite." Bond contends the findings are not in line with what other studies have found in the region.

"There is no evidence that industrial incineration destroys this toxic firefighting foam. And in the full knowledge of this fact, millions of pounds of AFFF was burned at Norlite. We need a much bigger investigation onto what happened when that AFF was burned. And there's good reason to think that perfluorinated compounds were admitted, you know, into the nearby neighborhoods. Norlite is located in a dense urban area, and those emissions are a public health risk to folks all across the Capital District.

DEC chief of staff Sean Mahar says the agency appreciates the fact that activists reviewed its report.

"And we look forward to working with them and the Cohoes community as part of our aggressive oversight of the Norlite facility. We stand by the design of our study and the conclusions our experts drew in reviewing the data. And to be clear, our experts did not find a pattern of aerial deposition or a health risk in this community. We will not relent in using the best available science to continue our aggressive oversight of the Norlite facility and ensuring that all Cohoes residents are protected."

Democratic Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler said he intends to follow up with state government officials to further discuss concerns about the plant, which is located near public housing facility Saratoga Sites.

"Regardless of the immediate soil and water sampling results, I remain committed to working with the Cohoes Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to close Saratoga Sites and relocate its 70 families to existing apartments in the city, but away from the industrial zone where they now live."

On Friday, residents of Saratoga Sites announced they are suing Norlite and its parent company, alleging hazardous dust is settling in their neighborhoods. Norlite’s parent company Tradebe USA says " A lawsuit is not necessary, but if one is filed, we will respond in court.”

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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