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NYS DEC orders Norlite to cease and desist off-site dust impacts

A photo of Norlite's sign

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is now threatening to shut down the embattled Norlite facility in Cohoes.

DEC is ordering Norlite to immediately cease and desist actions resulting in dust leaving the property. An agency report released Tuesday links fugitive dust from the facility with dust impacting neighboring properties.

In January 2021, Saratoga Sites resident Joe Ritchie said silica dust laden with tiny glass shards was accumulating daily on window sills, cars, and floors. He added that air conditioner filters were filled with dust and the dust turns the snow black.

"It's just very unsettling that people daily are breathing in glass, and they're being killed from the inside," said Ritchie.

Retired Columbia University geologist Dr. Dave Walker tested samples of Norlite aggregate Ritchie had sent him.

"We're dealing with a material, it's very much like volcanic glass," Walker said. "It's full of bubbles and full of glass shards. It has some mineral fragments embedded in it."

Experts said the material can cause serious health problems, including silicosis, a progressive and usually fatal lung disease.

"After community concerns began to arise regarding off site dust from the Norlite facility, DEC launched a comprehensive scientific investigation starting in the spring of 2021 to definitively prove that this dust was coming from Norlite," said DEC deputy executive commissioner Sean Mahar. "Now, with the results in hand, and Norlite's continuing, blatant disregard for the surrounding community, we're taking additional actions to have this facility address these violations immediately. If they do not address these violations, the state of New York will continue to use every tool in its toolbox to shut them down. We cannot have this continue in this community and we need to see actions from the facility now. And a notice of violation to the facility has outlined specifically the steps that we the state want to see this facility take to address this issue once and for all."

Democratic Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler says the DEC action is “welcome news.”

"The DEC findings about the particulates blowing from Norlite's operation into the Saratoga Sites and the surrounding neighborhoods are concerning but not surprising," Keeler said. "For two years I've been urging Norlite to cover their piles and contain the fugitive dust. I've been sounding the alarm about what is contained in the company's so-called black mix and other dusts coming from their operations. In an effort to make our communities safer I urged DEC to install air monitors and more closely track Norlite's fugitive dust, which area residents have complained about for decades. I applaud DEC Commissioner Seggos and his team and the progress that they have made today. This announcement is an important step in the process of holding Norlite accountable in improving the quality of life in our city. The next step is up to Norlite. For months officials at the company have said they want to be a good neighbor. They can start by covering their piles containing their fugitive dust and following the laws and regulations that come with incinerating hazardous waste."

DEC says Norlite must submit a plan within 60 days on ways to prevent dust releases, install and operate new off-site air monitoring and increase recording, reporting and training requirements regarding fugitive dust. DEC is also requiring the company to install weather equipment and conduct daily observations for any particulate impacts at the nearby Saratoga Sites apartment complex. DEC says penalties for the violations could rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars, ranging up to $22,500 for each day the violations continue.

The agency says it has told Norlite that its permit applications are not complete and a response is due by February 28th. Commissioner Basil Seggos says the state will move to shut the site down completely if Norlite does not comply.

Former EPA administrator and WAMC commentator Judith Enck says some of the solutions are actually not very complicated.

"Norlite could cover the giant piles of material that they have on site, something that neighbors have asked for for years," Enck said. "And they they just seem to be ignoring very legitimate community concerns, and DEC's announcements and their enforcement action validates what the community has been saying. The state just doesn't go far enough."

Norlite replied to a request for comment in a statement, saying in part: “Norlite is actively working on dust mitigation measures at our facility in Cohoes. For months, we have sought New York State approval to move ahead with detailed, comprehensive plans we submitted to New York State last October 15. We are required, and quite prepared, to coordinate with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In the time since our plans were submitted, the dust-mitigation equipment we proposed could have been ordered and installed. While we know of no credible evidence that the dust poses a risk to our community, Norlite has been and will continue to be fully responsive and cooperative in seeking a comprehensive solution that satisfies the concerns of state and local officials.”

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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