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Cohoes mayor wants to tear down public housing complex near embattled Norlite plant

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

The mayor of Cohoes is forging ahead with a plan to tear down a public housing complex near the embattled Norlite plant.

Democratic Mayor Bill Keeler is asking the Cohoes Housing Authority Board of Commissioners to approve the sale of the Saratoga Sites public housing property to the city as soon as all residents are relocated away from the Norlite hazardous waste incineration facility.

The relocation initiative was conceived in January 2020. The Cohoes Housing Authority recently notified the city that it is proceeding with an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to begin relocating the Saratoga Sites residents.

Longtime resident Joe Ritchie says although new housing is being built in Cohoes that may help accommodate displaced Saratoga Sites residents, he wonders if any of it will be ready in time for the residents to move in.

"There are properties being built around the city of Cohoes that are apparently income based, but those are not finished yet," Ritchie said. "And apparently, the Housing Authority will have people moved out by the summertime. So you know, this is all dependent on HUD approval. Nothing has happened yet with HUD. So I guess we're all, we're still speaking, hypothetically, the housing authority is pretty certain that they will get approval from HUD. So it's a waiting game, but I'm hearing from a lot of people that they're scared and they don't know, they don't know what to do even with all these options."

HUD did not have anyone immediately available for comment.

Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck says demolishing Saratoga Sites doesn't solve the long term problem: a highly polluting, hazardous waste incinerator located in the middle of the city.

"I appreciate Mayor Keeler being concerned about the health of the people who are living in the shadow of Norlite," Enck said. "But rather than interrupt the lives of 70 families, people who have lived there for decades, let's interrupt the pollution pattern coming from Norlite, the timing here is interesting. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in my judgment, should reject the renewed permits from Norlite, and then people wouldn't have to move."

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation responded to a request for comment via email, writing in part "The schedule for the State’s permitting timeframes is not DEC policy, it is the State Administrative Procedures Act, and any change would require an act of the State Legislature."

The agency also says it "shares serious concerns about conditions” at the Norlite plant, and its top priority is "to hold Norlite accountable for its impact on the surrounding communities, including frontline environmental justice neighborhoods."

Cohoes Housing Authority officials peg the city’s cost to purchase the property at $35,000. After acquiring the property, the city would assume responsibility for the estimated $600,000 cost of demolishing the housing development.

Enck also wonders if it’s a good idea to tear down Saratoga Sites and declare the land "shovel ready" for industrial use.

"I think if the city of Cohoes is going to purchase the land, first, they should test the soil to make sure that that they're not inheriting a lot of liability from past contamination," said Enck. "But if the city of Cohoes was to take control of the land, you don't want it to result in a new set of environmental problems. For instance, you don't want to open it up to workers who will be there all day long and be exposed to the Norlite pollution just like the residents of Saratoga Sites have. I could envision it as an area for solar panels if there's enough southern exposure. I could envision it as a parking area. But the last thing you want is another polluting industry coming in or Norlite expanding. we should not have parts of communities becoming environmental sacrifice zones."

Norlite responded to a request for comment by email, saying it is in the process of renewing its New York State environmental permits with DEC, and pointing out that while it "is not involved in the Cohoes Housing Authority’s decision to sell Saratoga Sites," it feels "an industrial user" for the site "is appropriate given its zoning and location."

The city’s purchase of the property, once residents are relocated and the disposition process is complete, would require the approval of the Cohoes Common Council. Council President William McCarthy tells WAMC the panel will be discussing Saratoga Sites when it meets tonight. He stressed there will be “no vote, just talk.”

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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