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New health complaint claims against embattled Norlite plant in Cohoes

A Norlite spokesperson tells WAMC the facility has reduced the height of its product piles and is completing a process that will result in the installation of screens and other engineering controls. This photo of the piles was taken April 20, 2022.
Dave Lucas
/
WAMC
A Norlite spokesperson tells WAMC the facility has reduced the height of its product piles and is completing a process that will result in the installation of screens and other engineering controls. This photo of the piles was taken April 20, 2022.

Activists say respiratory cancers have been linked to dust emanating from the embattled Norlite plant in Cohoes. The company disputes the claims, while the city mayor says more study is needed.

Local biochemist and cancer researcher Chris Sevinsky lives a mile south of the Saratoga Sites public housing complex. He says the so-called "fugitive dust" spewing from the neighboring Norlite hazardous waste incinerator contains heavy levels of silica, toxic metals and other carcinogens, and is a proven public health hazard.

"This is a World Health Organization grade one carcinogen, unequivocally a carcinogen, leaving Norlite's site for decades," Sevinsky said. "The dust mitigation strategies that they've put in place have failed. They've been asked to cease and desist if they can't come up with a more effective dust mitigation strategy. And I think they're past the 60-day mark that they were given by the DEC to do that."

Former EPA Administrator and WAMC commentator Judith Enck says Norlite hasn't corrected existing problems and the state Department of Environmental Conservation has failed to act.

"DEC did tell Norlite whenever there are westerly winds that exceed 13 mph and gusts that are 15 mph, that Norlite needs to suspend some of their operations. That's not happening," said Enck. "And once again Norlite is saying they're aware of the problems. They're taking steps to address it with screens and other limited things, but for decades Norlite has not fixed the problems, and in fact, has documented that they're violating environmental laws."

A Norlite spokesperson tells WAMC the facility has reduced the height of its product piles and is completing a process that will result in the installation of screens and other engineering controls, in line with Norlite's mantra that it is working in good faith to make operational and engineering changes to address concerns about dust.

Sevinsky cited New York state cancer registry data he says demonstrates a "bonafide cluster of lung cancer" in the area.

"So within this region, we see that folks that live in this cancer cluster have about a 50% to over threefold increase in the incidence of lung cancer versus similar populations elsewhere in the state," Sevinsky said. "This is really, really troubling. The link to Norlite could be direct."

Norlite in response cites a 2021 map created by ProPublica that shows the nearest cancer cluster is in Hoosick Falls, more than 18 miles away from Cohoes.

DEC responded to a request for comment stating it "continues to strictly oversee the Norlite facility’s operations," noting that the company has been complying with its requests.

Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler says DEC data clearly suggests that more research and enforcement is needed.

Keeler emailed WAMC a statement which says in part "These issues at Norlite have been going on for a long time" and "it is not clear to me that they have scientifically demonstrated a direct link between the cancer clusters in the area and the silica dust coming from Norlite."

Sevinsky says Saratoga Sites is likely to be demolished due to Norlite’s pollution, yet thousands of community members are still at increased risk of preventable illness and death. He joins Lights Out Norlite in calling for executive intervention to end Norlite’s pollution in.

"And we're asking Governor Hochul and her officials to shut this place down until we can figure out what the direct link may be," said Sevinsky.

The Hochul administration did not respond to a request for comment.

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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