ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Friday, the DEC received a sugary sweet statement with a salty meaning behind it. Neighbors who live around the Norlite facility in Cohoes delivered a cake to DEC headquarters in Albany, representing one year since Norlite’s hazardous waste permits expired.

“The DEC in the past has not done enough. I’m hoping with the new Hochul administration, we can really focus on these environmental justice issues. Would they want to live 100 feet from this facility? I don’t think so,” says Joe Ritchie.

Ritchie lives in the Saratoga Sites public housing complex just feet from the Norlite rotary kiln and ceramic aggregate plant. He and his neighbors living in the shadow of the plant’s smokestack all say when the wind blows, dust blows into their homes from massive ash piles.

As part if its work incinerating hazardous materials, Norlite utilizes a filtration system to keep particulates from escaping into the air. The captured residue, referred to as “baghouse dust”, is then used as an additive to its aggregate product and labeled as “block mix”, which is used in things like concrete. The block mix is stored on the facility property in several piles, some reaching about 50 feet high.

“Those [hazardous materials] will contain lead, mercury, arsenic — those are heavy metals, and if it’s a heavy metal when it goes into the kiln, it’s a heavy metal when it comes back out,” says Dave Publow, a member of Lights Out Norlite who is also making a documentary about the deteriorating health of people who live near the plant.

“The idea of mixing that in with their aggregate product and selling it to people who have no idea what they’re buying is enormously dangerous, and the fugitive dust that goes off of that block mix pile and flies off of the finishing plant area is an enormous public health threat,” he goes on to say.

“I’ve had people come to me and say their doctors have diagnosed them with a lung disorder that can only be attributed to working in an industrial factory, which they don’t work in industrial factories,” Ritchie explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

“It’s gotten so bad at Saratoga Sites, the Cohoes Housing Authority is moving residents out because of the dangers of that facility. What does that say? That facility has caused years and years of damage and it’s time to finally put that to rest,” he continues.

However, although Norlite’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Part 373 Permit and Title V Air Permit have both expired, the company has not been forced to stop operations.

A spokesperson on behalf of Norlite writes in a statement:

Norlite is in the process of renewing its New York State environmental permits with the Department of Environmental Conservation. We welcome constructive suggestions from DEC, our elected officials, and our community.

As a company, we are all about sustainability. We make products that make buildings safer and more energy efficient. We destroy hazardous wastes for our customers and our community. We comply with strict environmental standards that protect the health and wellbeing of our region. Our facility poses no environmental or health risk. Nevertheless, we are continuing to invest millions of dollars in new environmental technology in Cohoes. And we are committed to continuous improvement in our operations. 

However, that doesn’t totally line up with what the DEC says. The neighbors and environmentalists at Friday’s press event shared a letter from DEC Regional Director Anthony Luisi which was addressed to Cohoes Mayor William Keeler.

In that letter, Luisi wrote that back in the 1990s, Norlite was granted certain exemptions under what’s been established as the EPA’s “Bevill Exclusion”. This allowed Norlite’s baghouse dust and the use of that dust in its block mix to be excluded from being defined as hazardous waste.

However, Luisi’s letter says in April 2020, the DEC revised its definitions of hazardous waste to now include “air pollution from dust/sludge from lightweight aggregate production”. This change potentially puts Norlite in violation for piling the leftover materials from its kiln into the open air dust piles.

Luisi also wrote: “DEC agrees with you that residues accumulated in and removed from the facility’s air pollution control equipment should not be tossed on a muck pile at the facility and left in the open air for dispersion into the community.”

Despite Luisi’s assertions in his letter to Mayor Keeler, he also adds because Norlite’s hazardous waste permits were issued before the rule change in April 2020, the Bevill Exclusion remains in effect until new, modified permits can be issued. Luisi did say Norlite has been put on notice that the pending review process will remove their access to the Bevill Exclusion.

The representative who provided Norlite’s statement also wrote the company has extensive dust control plans, including water cannons, water trucks to monitor dust suppression, installed covers over certain portions of the dust piles, and hiring a full time employee as an environmental compliance specialist. However, when NEWS10 drove along streets lining the Norlite property, there were no covers seen on or around the dust piles surrounding the Saratoga Sites complex.

The representative also claimed the EPA has not revoked Norlite’s baghouse dust from the Bevill Exclusion and that the DEC only asked the company to explore other options. Friday, Luisi responded to NEWS10 requests for comment with an additional statement that reads:

DEC shares serious concerns about conditions at this facility, and it is our top priority to hold Norlite accountable for its impact on the surrounding communities, including frontline environmental justice neighborhoods. 

DEC is actively reviewing the use and management of baghouse dust at Norlite to determine if the facility is in compliance with all applicable requirements, which were recently strengthened by DEC to ensure the most stringent protections are in place to safeguard public health and the environment. This is just one of the many ongoing actions DEC is undertaking to safeguard the Cohoes community while we work with the Office of Attorney General to ensure that this facility addresses ongoing violations and any unauthorized activities that harm the environment and communities. 

Anthony Luisi, NYSDEC Regional Director

Another Norlite representative later reached out to NEWS10 again to provide another statement that reads:

Norlite has been and continues to work diligently through the permit renewal process in cooperation with all of DEC’s requests. Norlite appreciates DEC’s thorough review of the information we have submitted thus far, and we look forward to further discussions on the information we continue to assemble and provide in response to DEC’s ongoing review.