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HUD approves relocating residents, razing Cohoes apartments next to embattled Norlite plant

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

The Cohoes Housing Authority Staff and Board of Commissioners says it has received approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate residents of Saratoga Sites and demolish the complex.

Issues related to the incineration of hazardous materials at the Norlite facility next door have plagued the Cohoes neighborhood for years. Mayor Bill Keeler says HUD’s decision comes as no surprise.

"It's something that I've advocated since I came into office two years ago," said Keeler. "And the city has worked closely with Cohoes Housing Authority every step of the way. And you may recall that the city's Common Council agreed to purchase the property and demolish the existing buildings as a necessary step to make the move possible. And I have spoken as has CHA folks, we've spoken with developers in the city who have new apartments available, because we'd like to keep the Saratoga Sites residents in Cohoes."

Joe Ritchie of Saratoga Sites Against Norlite Emissions was born and raised under the plant's shadow. He says residents are being forced out of their homes as a result of pollution.

“The best thing we could do is pick up our stuff and leave and have our home where we've built our community be completely destroyed and leveled, because of the environmental harms caused by Norlite," Ritchie said. "It's tragic, but it's the only solution."

Former EPA regional administrator and WAMC commentator Judith Enck applauds the HUD decision but notes the pollution problems with Norlite remain for thousands of other city residents.

“And while it's good that people living in public housing next to the Norlite incinerator are moving, that should improve their health, we really do have to ask the fundamental question of why do these 70 families have to move while the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator continues to emit large amounts of pollution into the environment forcing that move,” Enck said.

Keeler, a first-term Democrat, says the city will now begin to seek state, and possibly federal, aid to facilitate closing Saratoga Sites.

“The purchase price is going to be around $35,000. But the accompanying demolition cost will probably be around $600,000," Keeler said. "I mean, separately, it's no secret that my staff and I, you know, we've held Norlite accountable for its actions like it no other time in the company's history in Cohoes. And we've done that in partnership with the New York State DEC. So for the past two years, Norlite has been under intense scrutiny. Cohoes and subsequently, you'll recall New York State passed laws banning the incineration of PFAS chemicals which were previously incinerated at Norlite. DEC has installed air monitoring on and around the Norlite campus and last month, Norlite actually installed the windscreens in an effort to resolve the fugitive dust issue that has really been the bane of nearby residents for 60 plus years. So the irony here is that residents are being moved out, just as Norlite appears to be cleaning up its act.”

The Housing Authority has invited all residents of Saratoga Sites to attend a discussion Monday at 6 to outline what will happen over the next few months. Ritchie expects from that point on things will start happening quickly.

“People will start to become moved and will work with the consultant they're using to relocate residents," said Ritchie. "No demolition can occur until obviously everybody is moved out so I'm guessing this is going to take at the least a few months if not more to occur.”

Norlite responded to a request for comment via email, saying “As a member of the Cohoes community for over 65 years, we support any decision made by the Housing Authority.” HUD did not return calls or emails 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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