‘Odd extrapolations’ cause concern over DEC’s Norlite study, DEC responds

Fire extinguisher

Fire extinguisher. (Piotr Chrobot / Unsplash)

COHOES, N.Y. (NEWS10) — A group of area environmentalists wrote a letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Wednesday, taking issue with its recent report on the Norlite facility in Cohoes. Although the DEC said there was no link between Norlite and PFAS deposits, the letter-writers say that conclusion is misleading.

The Norlite Hazardous Waste incinerator has been under fire for disposing of aqueous film-forming firefighting foam (AFFF) by burning it. Critics contended that this practice led to contamination of heavy metals like PFAS in the water, air, and soil nearby. PFAS and PFOS are byproducts of burning AFFF that can lead to health complications.

While the letter-writers say they appreciate the DEC for conducting testing and collecting solid data, they characterized their study as inconclusive and incomprehensive. They outline four major concerns:

  1. Worrisome levels of contamination downwind of Norlite (including lead, mercury, arsenic, and PFOS)
  2. DEC did not conduct a total organic carbon analysis and adjustment of PFAS levels in soil samples
  3. Using a range for to quantify acceptable levels hides the apparently higher levels of PFOS around Norlite
  4. The area of testing was too narrow to adequately capture emissions from burning AFFF

Check out the full letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, followed by the DEC’s response:

We write today to express our appreciation to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for doing additional sampling related to PFAS and heavy metal emissions at the Norlite Hazardous Waste incinerator. Your sampling provides some good data that adds to our knowledge about the impact of the facility.

However, the study is neither comprehensive nor conclusive. And the March 9, 2021 DEC news release is unfortunately very misleading.

The sampling may have been good but the interpretation is not. Contrary to DEC’s assertion, it does not prove there is “no clear link” between detected PFAS levels and Norlite’s burning of toxic firefighting foam known as AFFF. We hope that DEC will be willing to continue to work with us to study the impact of emissions for Norlite.

We have several major concerns:

1.) DEC’s own data identify worrisome levels of contamination downwind of Norlite (including lead, mercury, arsenic, and PFOS);
2.) It appears DEC neglected to conduct a Total Organic Carbon (TOC) analysis and adjustment of PFAS levels in soil samples;
3.) This use of ranges for background levels masks the fact that PFOS levels appear to be significantly higher around Norlite;
4.) The area of testing was too narrow to adequately capture emissions for Norlite’s burning of AFFF.

While DEC concluded there was “no clearly discernible pattern of aerial deposition that could be traced back to Norlite’s operations,” DEC’s own data identifies elevated levels of contamination downwind of Norlite and in the immediate vicinity of Norlite. DEC’s own data measured higher levels of arsenic, mercury, and lead downwind of Norlite. These are all dangerous heavy metals known to be emitted by the incineration of toxic waste (page 4). Moreover, the TOP Assay analysis also identifies elevated levels of PFAS compounds downwind of Norlite (page11). Both of these data points suggest it is not possible to rule out Norlite emissions as the source of contaminated soils in the neighborhoods around the incinerator.

Moreover, DEC’s interpretation of the data is at odds with standard scientific practices for questions of airborne deposition of PFAS. For one, it appears DEC neglected to conduct a Total Organic Carbon (TOC) analysis and adjustment of PFAS levels in soil samples, a shortcoming that makes it hard to have full confidence in the DEC data. Organic matter is like a sponge that absorbs PFAS compounds in soil after airborne deposition—the more organic matter in soil, the more PFAS that soil can retain. (PFAS seems to flush through sandy soils quickly while getting bound-up in rich topsoil). Without checking TOC in the soils, DEC took samples of (and adjusting the final results according to TOC, a standard scientific calculation), it is impossible to determine if DEC’s PFAS results in soil are due to the organic composition of the soil or the airborne deposition of PFAS.

DEC also presents the crucial question of background soil PFOS levels by comparing the ranges within analytical results between their data and the Vermont DEC Background Study. This is not a statistically valid comparison, as the highest levels in both datasets are statistical outliers. A more comprehensive analysis would analyze the body of the datasets. The median value of soil PFOS found by NY-DEC near Norlite is 1.3 ppb, which is above both the median (0.685 ppb) and upper quartile (1.2 ppb) soil PFOS values from the VT-Background study. A Tukey HSD pairwise analysis of the datasets indicates statistically significantly higher soil PFOS near Norlite than in all other datasets available from the region, including the Vermont Background Study and samples collected from the Catskills and Adirondacks). PFOS is a major ingredient in AFFF, which Norlite burned despite EPA and DEC’s voiced concern that incineration may not fully destroy the toxic PFAS compounds in AFFF.

In addition, the DEC study sometimes conflates “residential use guidance values” with evidence of emissions. In the report, DEC seems largely concerned with PFAS levels that rise above what they deem acceptable for various uses (residential, farming, industrial, etc.)

If PFAS levels don’t rise above those thresholds, they are taken as acceptable. This misses the point. The urgent question for residents is not what is an appropriate use of their contaminated soils but what exactly came out of the Norlite stacks when the facility burned millions of pounds of toxic fire-fighting foam? That question remains acutely unanswered, and DEC’s defensive summary of this study may place DEC in worrisome company and pit the agency against the scientifically sound concerns of local residents.

We also note that there are no testing methods to detect many of the idiosyncratic perfluorinated emissions thought to occur when you attempt to burn AFFF. This is critical to acknowledge, as EPA and others have done. On this front, the results of the downwind TOP Assay are particularly interesting (page 11). DEC notes that PFAS levels around Norlite do not resemble other sites of known AFFF contamination in New York, like in Newburgh. But it’s not clear this is the best comparison. AFFF spilled at Newburgh was never subjected to an aggregate kiln.

As is now well known, PFAS aresols can travel a tremendous distance from emitting facilities. DEC’s study approaches the wide-angle question of PFAS emissions from Norlite with a microscope. Almost all of the soil samples in DEC’s study appear to be taken within about ½ a mile from Norlite. It’s hard to discern comprehensive emission patterns when you are that zoomed in. (For example, in the Bennington College prior studies, distinct patterns of airborne deposition of PFAS emissions from the plastics plant in Bennington and Hoosick Falls could not be discerned until it started sampling at the scale of about 250 square miles). [See: Schroeder, Bond, and Foley 2021]

Even with the flawed analysis of the DEC study, PFOS, PFNA, PFDS, and a number of toxic heavy metals appear to be much higher on the grounds of the Saratoga Sites Public Housing Complex than elsewhere in the region. Home to 70 families, the Saratoga Sites Public Housing Complex sits a mere 400 feet from the Norlite smokestacks.

These questionable interpretations, odd extrapolations, and limited analysis all caution against concluding too much. DEC’s summary that this study finds “no clear link” between Norlite emissions and soil and water contamination in surrounding neighborhoods is premature at best. This study does not contain definitive nor comprehensive evidence that Norlite did not emit dangerous chemicals into the Capital District.

While we appreciate DEC contributing to the data we have about Norlite, the results are not conclusive. We ask that you work with us to map out a more scientifically rigorous approach to evaluating the emissions from the plant, including dust and mercury, and to evaluate how the health of local residents may have been impacted.

Joe Ritchie, Executive Director of Saratoga Sites Against Norlite Emissions
Judith Enck, Former Region 2 EPA Administrator
David Bond, Associate Director of Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Bennington College
Christine Primomo and Barbara Heinzen, Clean Air Coalition of Greater of Greater Coeymans
Elizabeth Moran, NY Public Interest Research Group
Mark Dunlea, Esq., Green Education and Legal Fund
Francis Magai, People of Albany United for Safe Energy

The DEC’s Chief of Staff, Sean Mahar, sent the following statement in response to the letter later on Wednesday:

We appreciate this group took the time to review New York State’s comprehensive analysis and look forward to continuing to work with the community on our efforts to aggressively oversee operations at Norlite. While we are reviewing their comments, we stand by the design of our study and the conclusions drawn from our experts’ review of the data – experts who are on the frontlines of addressing these emerging contaminants on a daily basis.

To be clear, the low-level detections do not indicate a pattern of aerial deposition or a health risk to the community and we are not relenting in using the best available science in our efforts to hold this facility accountable.

DEC is closely scrutinizing all potential sources of fugitive dust, immediately responding to community complaints of dust and other impacts from the facility, and continuing to compile new information in order to hold the facility accountable and to ensure that DEC’s decision-making is accurately informed by the latest facts and data.

DEC will soon hold a public information session to discuss the study and provide other updates about DEC’s oversight and response to community concerns at Norlite. We encourage folks to participate and also continue to call on local residents to immediately report suspected violations to DEC at (800) 457-7362 and to Norlite at (518) 235-0401.

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