Legislation to prohibit incineration of firefighting foam in Cohoes passes unanimously in both houses

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COHOES, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Legislation to prohibit the incineration of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) at the Norlite Hazardous Waste Facility in Cohoes passed unanimously in both the Senate and the Assembly. It will now go to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for consideration. 

Assemblyman John McDonald and Senator Neil Breslin introduced the legislation in February within weeks of learning that the U.S. Department of Defense entered into a contract with the Norlite Facility to burn and dispose of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals without any sort of environmental review.

“The EPA, even the DEC, are not exactly sure if this is going to work, so why do we want to put the public at risk?” said Assemblyman McDonald.

Originally, the legislation had been written as a statewide ban, but assemblyman McDonald told NEWS10 ABC they modified it over the weekend.

“As we were only pretty much taking up local bills and the criminal justice package this week, we made an amendment over the weekend to make it what’s called a ‘Special Act Bill.’ What this means is that this bill is focused on this community of Cohoes. The fact of the matter is, this [Norlite] is the only incinerator capable of burning PFAS material in New York State. So we’ve accomplished the same goal,” said Assemblyman McDonald.

It was former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Judith Enck, who initially brought the issue to the attention of Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler back in February. She said AFFF contains chemicals linked to cancers, liver disease, autoimmune deficiencies, and infertility.

“National environmental organizations did a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense. So thank goodness they submitted that Freedom of Information request and thank goodness they reached out to me, otherwise we never would have known about this,” said Enck.

While Enck is happy to see the legislation get through the legislative body, she said it won’t be a total victory until the Governor signs it. In the meantime, residents can rest assured that there is currently no burning of AFFF thanks to the one-year moratorium implemented by Mayor Keeler last month.

“The Governor’s got a great environmental record, and this is really, when you consider the 70 families that live in Saratoga Sites low income housing, an environmental justice issue. So I’m hopeful the Governor will quickly sign this,” said Mayor Keeler.

“We have a one-year moratorium, but it would be really good to just close the barn door here,” said Enck.

“It’s good to see when all levels of government city, county, state, and federal come together to work on a problem,” said Assemblyman McDonald.

AFFF is used to extinguish fires and was banned in New York after it was determined that it posed a threat to water supplies. Norlite burned the toxic firefighting foam in their hazardous waste incinerator as an energy source in 2018 and 2019. 

In early March, Bennington College did a water and soil study at sites in close proximity to Norlite and reported finding elevated levels of PFAS compounds. The report concluded that the burning of AFFF is not destroying the chemicals; instead it is redistributing them into nearby neighborhoods.

“When you look at Cohoes and the surrounding communities, you’re looking at a population of 75,000 people that could be potentially impacted,” said Assemblyman McDonald.

The question remains, how do you safely dispose of this potentially hazardous material?

“I’m hoping this whole experience will prompt the Pentagon to put money into research and development to find a safer, long-term strategy,” said Enck.

The DEC said it will start testing the impacts of burning PFOS, but it’s a process that could take months or even years. Assemblyman McDonald said that testing should be done in a rural area where it will have minimal impact, not in Cohoes.

NEWS10 reached out to the Governor’s office for a response, and they released the following statement:

“We’ll review the bill. But it’s worth noting that in 2019, the DEC directed Norlite to cease its incineration of firefighting foam that contains PFAS compounds.”

Additional information from the Governor’s office: “DEC has continued working with local elected officials, including the Mayor of Cohoes, to assess the potential impacts of Norlite’s past incineration of firefighting foam. New York State banned the use of AFFF after determining it posed an environmental and public health threat, and is suing the manufacturers of AFFF to hold them accountable for the damage their products have caused. We remain committed to a rigorous, science-based effort to protect New Yorkers from emerging contaminants like PFAS compounds.”

The New York Public Interest Research Group also applauding the legislative passage. They released the following statement:

“The Department of Defense has put countless Americans at risk of exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals by improperly handling and disposing AFFF for decades – they continue to jeopardize health by sending this foam to incinerators without any environmental review. Thankfully, the New York legislature has taken a proactive step to protect New Yorkers that live near the Norlite facility in Cohoes by banning this dangerous practice at the facility. Burning PFAS has the potential to pollute air and water and should be banned statewide – however, this legislation is a crucial step forward. NYPIRG thanks Assemblyman McDonald and Senator Breslin for their work on this legislation, and we urge the Governor to sign this bill into law as soon as possible.”

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