Cohoes incinerator found to be burning toxic chemicals, polluting nearby areas

Photo taken by Joe Ritchie on April 27.
A recent report from Bennington College indicates that the Norlite Incinerator plant contaminated Cohoes, a city in Albany county, with PFAS from burning aqueous fire fighting foam (AFFF).

On Monday, a report from Bennington College indicated that the Norlite Incinerator plant contaminated the city of Cohoes and surrounding areas with Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, from burning aqueous fire fighting foam, a chemical that is linked to a variety of cancers  and has been produced in the United States since the 1940s.

These substances are a “forever chemical” meaning they cannot be broken down and they accumulate in soil, air and water.

“The smell [is] like sulfur. It’s this horrible smell you get when you mix all your chemicals together and burn [them]. That’s the smell you can get in the summertime when we want to open up our windows,” said Joe Ritchie, who grew up in the Saratoga Sites Public Housing  which is only a few hundred feet from the plant — and is now home from his sophomore year at Syracuse University.

“And then once [Norlite] starts burning, the house gets filled with the odor and it’s horrible,” Ritchie continued.

Ritchie misses home while he is away at college, but home entails another reality for him – poor air quality, rancid odor and black soot from the Norlite Incinerator. He said that he felt and breathed better in Syracuse and while studying abroad in Spain.

“[When I] go to the mailbox or I’m just going to my car – if [Norlite is] burning I have to hold my breath. Because if I don’t, this is not exaggerating, you literally cannot breathe and you start coughing,” said Ritchie. “The findings from Bennington College were not surprising. They’ve been burning things here for generations and they really shouldn’t be burning things where people live.”

Professors and students at Bennington College found traces of PFAS in four sites around the Norlite Incineration plant in March.

The Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, sponsored by the government agency National Science Foundation, researched PFAS since the toxic contaminant was found in a water supply in Hoosick, Rensselaer County, that was bringing water farther east, to locations such as Petersburgh, NY and Bennington, VT.

In February, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) submitted by an activist in California discovered that the Department of Defense, which potentially has contaminated over 400 army bases and surrounding drinking water with PFAS, sold the Norlite Incineration plant millions of gallons of fire fighting foam over the last two years. 

In March, Bennington College professors and students tested soil and water from four sites, all within 800 meters of Norlite, including the Saltkill Creek, a watershed in the Capital Region. 

After sending the samples to Eurofins Lab, a commercial lab, it concluded Norlite’s incineration of toxic compounds distributed them further and did not destroy them.

The FOIA reported that the Department of Conservation knew about the burning of hazardous materials and did not notify residents.

“Our window sills, and our cars, have this soot on them. [When you wipe them] the paper towel is completely black,” said Ritchie. “And that’s normal if you haven’t washed your windows for maybe months, but this is an accumulation of two weeks.”

“[The black soot and odor] is something that has been happening forever … because they’re burning pretty much around the clock,” said Ritchie. 

The Norlite plant, located hundreds of feet from public housing, residential areas and stores, burned AFFF mixed with fuel to produce the heat necessary to aggregate shale, a component in fire-proof infrastructure. 

“It’s like putting your mouth on a muffler and breathing it in – you can’t breathe it in, you start choking,” said Ritchie about AFFFs.

The presence of the PFAS in the soil and water informed Bennington researchers that fire fighting foam does not break down completely when incinerated, despite a report released in July 2019 by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The DEC wrote, “One potential disposal method for PFAS waste is through high temperature chemical breakdown, or incineration.”

“The AFFF is not being [destroyed through] incineration, and is instead being admitted and raining back down on the neighborhoods around Norlite,” said David Bond, the associate director of the Center for Advancement of Public Action, who led the research.

PFAS have a half life of up to eight years, reports Toxic-Free Future, an organization focused on families and the environment. Bond did not indicate whether the team knew the age of the PFAS in the soil and water.

Tests performed by students and professors at Bennington College indicated the presence of PFAS in soil and water that closely matched the makeup of fire fighting foam.

“Previous studies have delved into PFAS contamination in groundwater at sites of extensive [fire fighting foam] use such as air force bases and firefighting training centers,” David Bond said during a press conference. “When I overlaid our results from Norlite on top of these previous studies, I was taken aback, they lined up almost perfectly, both in the specific PFAS compounds detected and the relative amounts of those compounds contamination.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS can “cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals.”

However, research on the chemical’s effects when burned is not well studied.

“While drinking contaminated water may be the primary pathway, it’s far from the only pathway of exposure that people are exposed to these chemicals, through a whole host of things including inhalation breathing,” said Bond. “All of these are sort of also pathways of exposure. And we don’t yet understand what kinds of injuries those pathways of exposure may inflict.”

The plant burned the foam despite no evidence or tests concluding the material would incinerate safety. 

“National environmental groups, [such as] Sierra Club and Earth Justice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense for commencing this burning without going through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” said Judith Enck, the senior advisor to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Environment on Monday. “[To] burn massive amounts of toxic firefighting foam and other PFAS chemicals – there was essentially no environmental review and no test burning done in advance.”

PFAS are considered safe to burn by the New York State Department of Conservation but research on the compound indicates otherwise. Senator Neil Breslin, D-Albany, and Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Cohoes, have introduced legislation to make it illegal to burn fire fighting foam. 

“You can see them constantly burning something through their smokestacks… I’ve been hearing on the news that Norlite is not incinerating anything at the moment because they’re trying to put in scrubbers,” said Ritchie “Well they’ve been burning nonstop for the past couple months.”

On Tuesday, the Cohoes Common Council put a moratorium on the incinerator to give state lawmakers time to pass a law forbidding the incineration of PFAs.

Meanwhile the company that operates the incinerator — Tradebe Environmental Services, LLC — said it has stopped processing aqueous firefighting foam for now and issued the following statement:

“The Norlite facility in Cohoes has voluntarily stopped accepting and processing AFFF pending additional research by the U.S. EPA regarding the best means of disposal of the material,” the statement reads. “Our acceptance and processing of AFFF in the past was done in accordance with the permits issued by the U.S. EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We understand and are sensitive to public questions and concerns about AFFF and are committed to complying with direction from federal and agencies to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.”