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Environmentalists Press DEC Over Norlite Permits; Norlite Responds

The DEC's Jeff Wernick with activist Joe Ritchie.
Dave Lucas
The DEC's Jeff Wernick with activist Joe Ritchie.

Activists are calling on the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation to deny the renewal of Norlite's air toxics and hazardous waste permits.

Advocates led by the group "Lights Out Norlite" want the DEC to put a stop to the Cohoes facility's burning hazardous waste as "fuel." Former U.S. EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck was among those presenting a letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in Albany Wednesday:

Activists gathered outside DEC HQ in Albany, July 28, 2021.
Credit WAMC / Dave Lucas
Activists gathered outside DEC HQ in Albany, July 28, 2021.

"Now the DEC is likely going to say to reporters that it's premature for us to be making this request because the full permit application has not been accepted by the DEC That is true. But these permits expired December 31st. You and I are not allowed to drive our cars if our inspection sticker is expired. So why is a major polluter allowed to continue to contaminate our local environment running on expired permits. It might be legal in the eyes of the DEC but it is not protective of public health."

Enck says there is an "adequate public record" of years of Norlite violating environmental law.

“A big chapter in the history of Norlite was when it secretly burned over 2.4 million tons of toxic firefighter foam. They can no longer burn PFAS chemicals, toxic firefighter foam, not because of the DEC, but because the state legislature passed a law prohibiting this and the Cohoes city council and the Albany County Legislature.”

Last November, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to ban PFAS burning at the plant. But environmentalists say huge piles of aggregate on the property are not covered and are said to contain silica dust, linked to silicosis, a terminal lung disease. Joe Ritchie grew up in the next door Saratoga Sites Public Housing complex.

"We're calling on the DEC to act to save the children of the future. And to make sure that there is another Joe Ritchie growing up in this area, making it OK for there to be dust on my cars every single day, for there to be black snow every single day, for there to be, I can't even get my mail some days because of how badly the smells are. For children playing in these dust storms of hazardous silica dust. It's unacceptable."

Ritchie wanted to ensure the activists' letter reached DEC top brass. 

"I'm hand-delivering this so they can get it the same day, so they can read it today, so they don't have to defer it for another week, another month."

The DEC's Jeff Wernick appeared outside the building to receive the letter to Commissioner Segos.

Norlite’s parent company responded in its own letter to the DEC and held a press call soon after: Jim Berlow is a private consultant, formerly with the EPA.

“They wouldn’t be operating if the permit was fully expired.”

Early this year, Ritchie revealed that he had samples from a Norlite aggregate pile tested by a retired geologist who found the material contained mineral fragments and glass shards.

Prince Knight is Norlite's on-site environmental and regulatory compliance manager.

"Covering those piles is not practical. People have compared it to, you know, well, why the DOT stock piles are able to have color covers, and so forth. And the answer there is that well, they're not covered so much for dust, but they're covered for protection from the elements. That's not the case with Norlite's piles. Now, that being said, we of course, absolutely are concerned with respect to what our community residents are potentially concerned with. And we have begun covering some of the piles that have less activity. All right, and the covers have started to go on. So on the piles that can be covered. We are in the process of covering that."

In a statement, the DEC said its “enforcement is ongoing as we continue to hold the facility accountable to all laws and regulations and respond to the concerns of the surrounding community.” 

The Full NYSDEC Statement Issued By Region 4 Director Anthony Luisi:

Working with this community to address concerns about Norlite’s operations is a priority for the Commissioner and DEC Region 4 as evidenced by our close scrutiny provided and enforcement actions taken to date, as well as the extensive reviews that will take place as part of permitting, and our ongoing public engagement. We continue to communicate with community leaders and concerned residents regularly.

DEC encourages active public participation during the permitting process, especially when the proposed permits involve industrial facilities located in low-income or minority communities, like those near Norlite, which have historically borne a disproportionate share of environmental pollution. The public participation meetings and public comment period for the Norlite permit renewal application have not yet begun, but DEC appreciates all community input and accepts the letter delivered today as part of our ongoing review of facility operations. DEC’s permitting process will provide additional opportunities for public input going forward. DEC’s enforcement is ongoing as we continue to hold the facility accountable to all laws and regulations and respond to the concerns of the surrounding community.

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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