Already under intense scrutiny from environmental advocates and local elected officials, the Norlite plant in Cohoes is facing new clean air violations from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. But environmentalists are also taking aim at the DEC.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued six new air quality violations Wednesday against Norlite after inspections February 3rd and 8th revealed violations of air quality requirements and controls to prevent dust from leaving the site. The DEC says it took corrective action.
Almost a year ago, it emerged the plant was burning PFAS-laden firefighting foam for the U.S. Defense Department. In November, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to ban such burning at the plant, which is located near the Saratoga Sites public housing project in the Albany County city.
Residents and advocates have released a letter to the New York Inspector General calling for an investigation into DEC's actions that led to Norlite's burning PFAS. The letter cites April 2019 emails between DEC staff and the parent company of Norlite, Tradebe, wherein DEC staff states “it would be great to show that incineration is a viable option” for PFAS chemicals.
Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck is also a WAMC contributor:
“The two most important people that are entrusted with protecting public health at this facility are the DEC on-site monitor and the DEC Regional Director. Those were the two people who knew as early as March 2019, that this incineration of PFAS chemicals was happening. Yet the DEC as an agency has consistently said to the public, that they did not know that Norlite was burning this until late 2019. And as soon as they found out they directed Norlite to stop. This timeline is not true.”
According to a statement issued by Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler, "there is a new DEC on-site monitor at Norlite and there is a new Region 4 Director" whom Keeler says the city is in contact with "almost daily."
Keeler also says officials believe DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos "has made good on his pledge to make changes and make progress on our community’s concerns."
During a Thursday Zoom call, the advocates called for immediate investigation of DEC staff regarding the emails. DEC Chief of Staff Sean Mahar says the agency takes community concerns about Norlite's operations "very seriously."
"We have no patience for this facility's bad actions, and to suggest DEC is in cahoots with Norlite is absolutely absurd. No matter what the conspiracy theorists suggest, DEC will continue to go after this facility using science and the law as evidenced by the enforcement actions announced yesterday. As we've said all along, when DEC executives learned that Norlite had been accepting AFFF that contained PFAS, we put a stop to it, even though it wasn't illegal at the time. DEC is taking a hard look at the facility's entire operations, including investigating the complete history of AFFF incineration, dust control efforts, and undertaking our own comprehensive expert study of any potential PFAS soil and water contamination in this community. Information broadcast by the advocates today as 'news' is identical information we shared with the public for months. And as our internal investigation advanced, we shared that information with the community and state and local leaders."
State Assemblyman John McDonald and state Senator Neil Breslin, both Democrats like Mayor Keeler, issued a joint statement on the call for an independent inquiry. Here's McDonald:
"I support independent inquiries of the state agency in this aspect, because I do believe that the department currently is doing tremendous oversight over the Norlite facility, and I think that that will be something that public will start to see in the coming days, if not weeks and months."
Tradebe spokesperson Prince Knight responded to a request for comment saying Norlite has been cooperating with DEC and provided a list of "facts" in response to "falsehoods" Tradebe attributes to participants on the Zoom call. Here is Knight's unedited response:
As a highly regulated entity required to comply with many different and highly technical federal and state regulatory programs and permits, we endeavor to achieve 100% compliance, but the reality is that operational and human errors may occur. We are sensitive to concerns about the violations that have been cited against Norlite over the past 30 years. When Tradebe acquired Norlite in 2011, we recognized that there were opportunities for improvement and investment. With the knowledge and commitment of our long-term employees who have stayed with us through all of the challenges, we have made significant progress on our journey to achieve our goal of operating a state-of-the-art, compliant facility.
We also understand the community has health concerns regarding dust in the area. We have been cooperating with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to evaluate our facility’s existing fugitive dust plan as we identify investments in the necessary resources to improve our dust suppression program and will continue to cooperate to address the notices of violation.
During today’s new conference, several false claims about Norlite and our operations in Cohoes were made by activists who either don’t understand the facts or are intentionally misrepresenting them. Our intent is to provide the public, elected officials and the news media with the information they need to separate the truth from some truly egregious displays of disrespect for reality:
Silica dust from Norlite is dangerous.
Industrial hygiene tests conducted regularly at the Norlite facility show silica on the property is well below the levels that regulatory agencies regard as permissible. Concentrations off the property would naturally be lower than the concentrations on the property.
Norlite is not operating under valid environmental permits because our previous permits expired at the end of 2020.
Norlite is operating under valid environmental permits. Environmental permits are, by law, valid and in effect while regulatory agencies review permit renewal applications that have been submitted timely, as Norlite has done.
Norlite was not authorized to burn aqueous film forming foam (AFFF).
Norlite’s acceptance of AFFF was entirely legal. Our destruction of the material was performed in accordance with the strict emission limits in our permits. PFAS, the constituent of concern in AFFF, is not a regulated hazardous waste under state or federal law, and therefore was not prohibited from incineration under our permits.
Norlite was required to seek a permit modification to burn AFFF.
No permit modification or test burn of AFFF was required. This statement, by former EPA Region 2 Administrator Enck, is a cynical attempt to frighten and mislead people. Ms. Enck was the Region 2 EPA administrator under President Obama when Norlite’s contract with the federal government to accept and incinerate AFFF was approved. Surely, she knows how the laws work and that no permit modification was required.
Norlite was secretive about its burning of AFFF.
Though under no obligation to do so, Norlite informed the DEC months before the matter received broad public attention. The matter received public attention because the contract between Norlite’s parent company, Tradebe Environmental Services, and the federal government was a public document.
The scientific consensus is that incineration of AFFF is unsafe.
There is no such consensus. In fact, EPA is studying this very question.
Norlite is violating its environmental permits for mercury emissions.
Our emissions of mercury and other regulated compounds are in compliance with our federal and state permits. DEC’s own sampling, data reviews and visual analysis demonstrate that Norlite operates well within the limits that environmental regulators have set for emissions. Furthermore, DEC’s mercury emissions standards with which Norlite complies are significantly more stringent that those required by EPA, as Ms Enck surely knows having been an employee of EPA for seven years.
Norlite views fines for noncompliance as “the cost of doing business.”
Norlite recently made a $30 million investment in environmental equipment and technology to ensure compliance with strict permit limits. This was an entirely private investment, made voluntarily and without any public money.
Norlite did not burn hazardous waste until after the Saratoga Sites housing complex was built.
Norlite began incinerating hazardous waste in the mid-1960s, long before officials in Cohoes thought it appropriate to locate a public housing complex next to an industrial zone in which Norlite and other area industries operate.
Ms. Enck said Norlite can operate strictly by burning natural gas. That’s true. The destruction of hazardous waste, however, provides a non-virgin mined, drilled, or refined natural resource based source of fuel (such as coal) while simultaneously eliminating an environmental hazard – both of which are clearly in the public interest. It’s irresponsible for an “environmental advocate” to advocate for the burning of fossil fuels, instead of the safe recovery of energy value from alternative fuels that would otherwise be landfilled and some of which are required to be incinerated.