Local environmental advocates call for investigation into DEC’s knowledge of AFFF burning at Norlite

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COHOES, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Local environmental advocates are calling on the Inspector General and the New York State Department of Conservation to launch an investigation after they say they uncovered what they’re calling “troubling e-mails” revealing that the DEC had not been truthful regarding their knowledge of the burning of toxic firefighting foam at the Norlite facility in Cohoes. “In my view, DEC is either unwilling or unable to regulate this facility and protect public health,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Director.

On Thursday, a group of local environmental advocates and Cohoes residents released copies of e-mails between a former high-ranking official with the NYS DEC and staff from Norlite. They said the exchanges contradict DEC’s previous public statements that they did not know about the burning of toxic firefighting foam at the facility until December of 2019. The advocates said the e-mails they recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request reveal that Kieth Goertz, a former regional director with the DEC, had actually discussed the burning process with Norlite as early as April of 2019.

“We appreciate that DEC said when they found out that this burning was happening that they told Norlite to stop. They could have told Norlite almost a year earlier and if they had done that it would have prevented thousands of people from being exposed to a highly toxic chemical,” said Enck.

The advocates are also requesting an investigation into Joe Hadersbeck, who spent many years serving as the DEC onsite monitor at Norlite.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos releasing a statement saying in part: “to suggest DEC is in cahoots with Norlite is absolutely absurd.”

Seggos and the DEC Chief of Staff Sean Mahar said the information regarding Norlite approaching the DEC about a proposal to burn Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) back in April of 2019 is not new information and has been posted on their website for months.

“As our understanding of the situation evolved so did our public statements to the community and it is important to note that at the time this was not an illegal activity but as soon as we at the executive level here at DEC found out, we put a stop to it,” said Mahar.

Liz Moran, Environmental Policy Director for NYPIRG, sent the following statement to NEWS10;

“The email exchange that has been brought to light by residents of Cohoes regarding the burning of toxic PFAS firefighting foam at Norlite is deeply alarming. It is DEC’s mission, first and foremost, to protect public health and the environment; yet this email exchange raises the specter that at least some of DEC’s staff – and perhaps the agency itself – failed in that mission. PFAS chemicals have proven to be unsafe for health and the environment, and every precaution must be taken to reduce exposure. Yet the emails indicate it is possible DEC allowed the unpermitted burning of these chemicals in Cohoes. NYPIRG supports the residents of Cohoes and the Capital region impacted by the activities at Norlite and urges that these incidents are investigated thoroughly.”

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos sent NEWS10 this statement;

“DEC takes this community’s 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 this facility’s entire operations, including investigating the complete history of AFFF incineration, dust mitigation and control efforts, and undertaking our own comprehensive, expert-led study of any potential PFAS soil and water contamination in this community. Information broadcast by advocates today as ‘news’ is identical to information DEC has shared with the public for months. And as our internal investigation advanced, we shared that information with the community and state and local leaders. DEC will remain a fixture in this community and will continue our aggressive actions and transparent communications.”

Norlite said the are “setting the record straight” sending NEWS10 the following statement;

Norlite operates a safe, environmentally responsible and heavily regulated business in Cohoes. Our goal is 100 percent compliance with our many, highly technical federal and state regulatory programs and permits. We are sensitive to community concerns about the violations that have been alleged against Norlite over the past 30 years. When Tradebe Environmental Services acquired Norlite in 2011, we recognized that there were opportunities for significant improvement. With the 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, fully compliant facility. 

We also understand our community has concerns regarding dust. We are cooperating with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to evaluate our facility’s existing state-approved dust plan and identifying necessary investments to improve our dust suppression program. 

During today’s news 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.

FALSEHOOD

Norlite is not operating under valid environmental permits because our previous permits expired at the end of 2020.

FACT

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.

FALSEHOOD

Norlite was not authorized to burn aqueous film forming foam (AFFF).

FACT

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.

FALSEHOOD

Norlite was required to seek a permit modification to burn AFFF.

FACT

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.  

FALSEHOOD

Norlite was secretive about its burning of AFFF.

FACT

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. 

FALSEHOOD

The scientific consensus is that incineration of AFFF is unsafe.

FACT

There is no such consensus. In fact, EPA is studying this very question.

FALSEHOOD

Norlite is violating its environmental permits for mercury emissions.

FACT

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.

FALSEHOOD

Norlite views fines for noncompliance as “the cost of doing business.”

FACT

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. 

FALSEHOOD

Silica dust from Norlite is dangerous.

FACT

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.

TRUTH

Ms. Enck said Norlite can operate strictly by burning natural gas. That’s true. The destruction of hazardous waste, however, provides a non-carbon-based source of fuel 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.

Assemblyman John McDonald said in a statement;

“About a year ago, we were first alerted to the possible burning of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) materials at the Norlite facility in Cohoes. We immediately worked to get answers and worked with stakeholders to put a stop to any incineration until more information was available. We promptly introduced legislation to halt the practice of burning AFFF containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at Norlite and the measure was ultimately signed into law in November 2020. We have remained fully engaged on this issue and will continue to advocate for the health and safety of our communities. Today, there was an announcement that stakeholders are requesting an Inspector General inquiry and investigation based on NYS Department of Environmental Conservation emails obtained pursuant to a freedom of information law request. We agree that accountability and answers are necessary and support an independent inquiry based on this information. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has been responsive to the concerns raised in the past year and the agency is working to increase oversight and enforcement at Norlite. We believe that is a step in a positive direction and know that the many stakeholders will remain vigilant on this issue.”

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