PFAS incineration and experimental science heighten concerns about environmental discrimination

Norlite smoke pollutes the sky near the Saratoga Sites public housing community. Image: Joe Ritchie

By Kristia Postema

Editor’s note: This is part of a set of three articles and a podcast on green justice – environmental justice – in the Great Lakes region.

The town of Cohoes, NY was founded in 1630.

Rich in history, the downtown district is a hub for tourists and history buffs.

But what these visitors don’t know is that just 2 miles south of downtown is the Saratoga Sites public housing community and the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator.

Joe Ritchie has lived his entire life in Cohoes, a suburb of New York’s capital, Albany. As a current tenant of Saratoga Sites, Ritchie remembers every day how close Norlite is to his home.

This is part of a set of three articles and a podcast on environmental justice in the Great Lakes region.

He said the smoke and dust from the incinerator pierces the air and causes daily problems for residents of the Saratoga sites.

“Sometimes I can’t even get my mail because of the bad Norlite smell,” Ritchie said.

In March 2021, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released a study of PFAS and metals in water and soil near the facility and said its analysis “comprehensive found “no clear link to Norlite operations, no indication of human health”. risk.”

The study came in response to community concerns about the possible impacts of the former incineration of Norlite’s fire-fighting foam.

Following the release of the DEC report, the CEO of Tradebe USA, Norlite’s parent company, released a statement saying, “These results confirm that our cutting-edge technology is protecting our community and the environment, and we hope these findings are reassuring. for our neighbors.”

“These results are consistent with numerous studies that confirm the effectiveness of our emissions control processes and technology, and further confirm the science that combustion is a safe and environmentally friendly method of destroying certain wastes. “, reads the statement of the company.

Joe Ritchie shows the Norlite dust that got on his car. Image: Joe Ritchie

Ritchie, a major in political science and environmental sustainability and policy at Syracuse University, has become a voice for environmental justice and security in his community.

Frustrated by the lack of public interest in residents of the Saratoga sites, he joined the advocacy group Lights Out Norlite and created the group Saratoga Sites against Norlite Emissions.

Ritchie is now the main organizer of Lights Out Norlite and the executive director of Saratoga Sites against Norlite Emissions.

In 2020, the Sierra Club and other activist groups discovered that Norlite was illegally incinerating AFF, a fire-fighting foam containing PFAS, Ritchie said. A 2020 Bennington College study revealed significant levels of PFAS contamination in soil from the Saratoga sites.

“Norlite is a classic example of environmental racism,” Ritchie said. “Yes, Norlite was there first, but the state continues to build public housing in the area.”

PFAS chemicals are man-made substances used in a variety of products to make them resistant to heat, oil, grease, and stains. These chemicals are difficult to destroy and dangerous to humans and animals.

Ritchie said his side of town is the most diverse in Cohoes and the most impacted by Norlite broadcasts.

“When the Department of Defense started incinerating these products, most places wouldn’t accept PFAS chemicals,” Ritchie said. “Norlite consistently violates environmental law, which is why it was selected.”

Based on emails requested by Ritchie between Norlite and the DEC, he said the department was unsure whether the chemicals would be completely incinerated, but decided in 2016 to allow Norlite to experiment.

“The state was willing to work with Norlite to see if these chemicals could be incinerated. They wanted us to be guinea pigs while they experimented,” Ritchie said.

According to Ritchie, the DEC regional manager and Norlite’s on-site controller were both aware of the incineration of PFAS at the facility.

“Norlite had actually cremated a lot more than the state told us,” Ritchie said. “The state told us they cremated about 2.5 million pounds, but we found they potentially cremated 6-8 million pounds over four to five years.”

Ritchie said he and other environmental activists were ultimately successful in getting the state to pass a law prohibiting the incineration of PFASwhich was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on November 23, 2020.

“It was met with great reluctance by the DEC,” he said. “They thought the bill was beyond their authority.”

Although it is now illegal for Norlite to incinerate PFAS, Ritchie said he was not convinced the business would stop.

The DEC issued a statement in June 2020 prohibiting Norlite from incinerating anything containing PFAS chemicals without prior approval. The DEC also said it would require a “new, comprehensive review process, with opportunities for public comment” before allowing any facility to incinerate PFAS.

“Norlite has proven that it doesn’t care about the community, only what is financially acceptable to itself,” he said.

A layer of Norlite dust litters the snow on the Saratoga Sites playground. Image: Joe Ritchie

Ritchie said he was also worried about the health issues he and his neighbors might face due to PFAS contamination.

“It takes time for these chemicals to flood the body and cause problems,” he said.

Even before the PFAS was cremated, Cohoes residents had high rates of health problems such as cancer and asthma, Ritchie said.

“I’ve talked to people whose kids didn’t have asthma when they first moved to the area and then after a few years they developed it randomly,” he said. declared.

According to Arthur Jones, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University and a member of the MSU Center for PFAS Researchthere are many unknowns regarding the incineration of PFAS.

“We don’t really know how much compounds are broken down in incinerators,” Jones said, “and we certainly don’t know what the exposure levels are and what the health effects are.”

According to Jones, the research center was developed to fill gaps in chemical knowledge and provide information to help guide policy related to PFAS.

Jones said incineration is the safest way to destroy PFAS chemicals, compared to alternatives such as landfilling, but there isn’t enough research on the exact temperature and time it takes. it takes to destroy them effectively.

“If incinerators don’t destroy PFAS chemicals completely, they’re likely to end up in ashes. So what happens to the ashes?” he said.

In the case of Norlite, the ashes end up at the gates of public housing communities.

Mark Axelrod, an associate professor with the Michigan State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and another member of the PFAS Research Center, said scientists have been trying to determine why hazardous waste facilities are located near poor communities. .

“What seems to have the strongest evidence is that siting decisions are based on where they least expect a reaction from the community,” he said. . “In many cases, it’s because of racial divides, historical inequalities and limited influences.”

Another major factor in siting decisions is finding areas with limited community capacity and leverage to challenge a company’s practices, Axelrod said.

Additionally, Jones said the levels of uncertainty surrounding PFAS make it difficult to regulate.

“PFAS has not been designated as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency, so regulations that apply to hazardous chemicals do not apply to PFAS,” he said.

Jones said there are methods available to measure PFAS in soil, food and human blood, but they only measure about 30 of the thousands of PFAS chemicals in use.

“None of these methods focus on chemicals that evaporate into the air,” he said. “There are certainly people involved, but there’s no regulatory process to monitor what’s going on in the air.”

According to Jones, PFAS contamination causes health problems ranging from diminished immune responses and reduced vaccine effectiveness to thyroid problems.

“If you’re exposed to PFAS, you won’t die within 24 hours, but the chemical builds up,” he said. “The effects are probably more subtle but they are widespread.”

In addition to concerns about PFAS-induced health effects, Axelrod expressed concern about the location of incinerators if science confirms that incineration is the safest way to destroy these PFAS chemicals.

“We have to make sure that we don’t experiment with communities that don’t have as much say in the decision-making process,” he said.