COHOES, N.Y. (NEWS10) — At the beginning of March, Bennington College conducted a water and soil study of four sites in close proximity to Norlite, in Cohoes. Researchers are now releasing results from the sampling in that area. The college was testing for PFAS contamination upon learning that Norlite burned toxic firefighting foam in their hazardous waste incinerator as an energy source in 2018 and 2019.
The college says the samples show PFAS contamination commonly associated with the use of firefighting foam or Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) which include PFOA/PFOS. AFFF is used to extinguish fires and was banned in New York after it was determined that it posed a threat to water supplies. Visiting professor and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Judith Enck, says Norlite is one of four plants across the country that was awarded a contract by the Department of Defense to get rid of the product.
“The results of this preliminary research suggest the burning of AFFF at Norlite is not destroying these dangerous chemicals so much as redistributing them into nearby poor and working-class neighborhoods,” the report says.
On Monday morning, Enck and Dr. David Bond, Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, held a video press conference to share what they found in their March 3 sampling. They say they found elevated levels of PFAS compounds in areas adjacent to the Norlite facility.
The professors say their data indicates the toxic chemicals are being emitted into the air.
“The soil and surface waters around Norlite are laced with PFAS compounds commonly found in AFFF. These levels declined with distance from the incinerator. Indeed, PFOS is twice as high downwind of the plant as it is upwind of the plant and far more PFAS compounds were detected downwind of Norlite than detected upwind. Both of these suggest airborne deposition of PFAS compounds,” said Bond.
“It is right next door to Saratoga Sites, a public housing complex where 70 families live,” Enck added.
Judith Enck informed Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler that Norlite was burning AFFF back in February. She said the product contains chemicals linked to cancers, liver disease, autoimmune deficiencies, and infertility. “Think about it,” she said. “This is a fire suppressant, so it’s not going to burn well in an incinerator.”
The professors say their research is preliminary and more testing is needed, but that tests should have been done beforehand, and they should not be done in densely populated areas like Cohoes.
“Until there is clear evidence that proper incineration destroys PFAS compounds, AFFF should not be burned,” said Dr. Bond.
Norlite says it is upgrading its facilities to prevent harmful chemicals from being released during incineration. The plant is not currently burning AFFF.
Mayor Keeler says the Cohoes City Council will meet Tuesday night at 7 p.m. to vote on a one-year ban on the burning AFFF and PFAs within the city. The meeting is not open to the public but will be live-streamed. Those wishing to share their views may email comments by Tuesday at 5 p.m. to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Given what we know about the hazards of PFAS chemicals, and the lack of solid science on the impact of burning firefighting foam AFFF containing these so-called ‘forever chemicals,’ it makes no sense to allow these hazardous materials to be incinerated in our community now, particularly with 70 families living in public housing in the shadows of the Norlite facility,” Keeler says.
The Mayor says Senator Neil Breslin and Assemblymember John McDonald proposed a state-wide prohibition against the incineration of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, but the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed consideration of that legislation.
“Given Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership on environmental safety and environmental justice issues, I am confident that the State will eventually adopt the McDonald/Breslin bill. However, in the interim, it is incumbent on us to act to prevent the resumption of the incineration of PFAS chemicals in Cohoes until the science is clear that it would be safe to do so,” Keeler says.
AFFF is made up of 250 PFAS compounds and has a specific fingerprint. In a teleconference Monday, Bond said samples taken near Norlite were compared to previous testing done at AFFF contaminated sites. The Norlite samples were a mirror image of previous AFFF testing results, suggesting the flames from firefighting foam released toxic PFAS into the environment.
Major findings in the Norlite water/soil samples
• Elevated levels of PFAS compounds were detected in the soil and water near the Norlite facility. These levels decline with distance from the incinerator.
• The PFAS compounds that make-up of AFFF, including PFOS, are higher around the plant then what is considered a background level in our region.
• The pattern of PFAS contamination in the soil and water around Norlite bears a strong resemblance to sites of known AFFF contamination, such as air force bases and firefighting training centers. Contamination at both Norlite and these legacy AFFF sites is marked by the prevalence of sulfonic and butanoic varieties of PFAS. This pattern differs from the composition of PFAS contamination elsewhere in the region.
• AFFF contains approximately 250 different perfluorinated compounds. There are only laboratory standards available for 50 of those compounds. Results from the TOP Assay analysis of soil and water near Norlite found evidence of significantly more PFAS compounds then we know how to detect. This finding is typical of sites with AFFF
“Residents in the Capital District are concerned that attempts to burn AFFF might contaminate their neighborhoods with highly toxic PFAS compounds. These testing results at Norlite indicate that those fears are justified. Burning PFAS chemicals is inherently risky because these firefighting compounds, by design, resist thermal destruction,” says Jane Williams, a national expert on PFAS chemicals and executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.
“With these new findings, DEC must step in and stop the quack science experiment they’ve allowed to unfold at Norlite. Does anyone really think spewing toxic chemicals into poor and working-class neighborhoods is a scientifically sound solution to the dangers of perfluorinated compounds? Incineration of AFFF must stop now,” Bond says.
DEC released a statement on Monday:
New York continues to lead the nation in addressing PFAS threats, and any insinuation to the contrary is absurd. DEC is reviewing the data released today, and it appears to be consistent with low background levels observed in urban areas in emerging scientific studies.
Since discovering Norlite was incinerating PFAS waste in late 2019, DEC has not allowed the incineration of firefighting foam at Norlite without additional testing to ensure the destruction of PFAS compounds. The facility is not currently incinerating this waste. Recall why the foam must be safely disposed of in the first place—New York State banned its use after determining it posed a threat to water supplies. And now DEC is suing the manufacturers of firefighting foam to hold them accountable for the damage their products have caused. We will not relent on our rigorous, science-based effort to protect New Yorkers.
DEC’s on-site monitor is providing strict oversight of this facility to ensure all operations are protective of human health and the environment.
Norlite has suspended the incineration of AFFF until further notice. DEC was made aware that the Norlite facility had processed AFFF-containing PFOS at its facility before shutting down operations for upgrades in December 2019. DEC quickly began an assessment of all permitting and regulatory requirements to ensure this facility can properly store and process AFFF-containing perfluorinated compounds like PFOS. While the facility may restart operations this year, it is not allowed to commence any incineration of AFFF. DEC’s permitting and regulatory investigation is ongoing at this time and additional actions will be taken if necessary as this review continues.New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
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