Bennington College team finds elevated levels of PFAS around NY plant

This overhead image shows the Norite hazardous waste incineration plant in Cohoes, N.Y. Students and faculty from Bennington College tested surface water and soil around the plant in March for PFAS compounds. A report on their findings was released on Monday.

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BENNINGTON — A student/faculty team from Bennington College that detected elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in soil and water around a Cohoes, N.Y., waste incineration plant is calling for a halt to burning of the materials.

According to a release Monday from faculty members David Bond and Judith Enck, "New soil and water testing near the Norlite incinerator plant in Cohoes, New York, which has been burning toxic firefighting foam, provides strong indication that incineration of AFFF (Aqueous Film-Forming Foam) at Norlite is not effective at breaking down PFAS compounds. Far from destroying these toxins, the Norlite facility appears to be emitting them into the surrounding communities."

The release states that in February, "environmentalists informed the public and local elected officials that the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator burned large quantities of toxic firefighting foam in 2018 and 2019. The fire suppressing foam contains a hodgepodge of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals, a class of highly persistent chemicals strongly linked to a host of cancers, liver disease, auto immune deficiencies and infertility."

The team went on to sharply criticize the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, saying the agency "has known Norlite was burning AFFF since 2018 yet did not disclose this to the public. Moreover, DEC has allowed the burning of AFFF despite there being no evidence that incineration destroys these forever chemicals, a lack of any stack testing to determine if PFAS compounds are being emitted at Norlite, and technical guidance from the EPA that incineration may not be an effective method of destroying AFFF."

"As has become the dismal norm, citizens are light years ahead of New York State in protecting us from toxic PFAS compounds," stated Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at the college. "It is beyond reprehensible that DEC allowed Norlite to burn these toxic chemicals absent compelling evidence that incineration destroys them. 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 perflourinated compounds? Incineration of AFFF must stop now."

In Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and in the area of Bennington where the college campus is located, hundreds of private wells were found to be contaminated from another PFAS chemical, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which Vermont officials determined had emanated from the exhaust stacks of former ChemFab Corp. factories in town that coated fabrics with PFOA-containing Teflon and dried it at high temperature.

DEC response

A release from the New York DEC, issued later Monday, stated in part that "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."

The statement adds, "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."

However, Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and a visiting professor at Bennington College, said, "These are very troubling test results since the toxic burning occurred in 2018 and 2019. The [DEC] allowed the burning to start without the benefit of stack testing, which is typically required before incineration is allowed. It is not safe to burn PFAS chemicals and certainly not in a densely populated city, next to a public housing complex. The people of Cohoes, Troy and the region should not be guinea pigs for Norlite as they rake in money from burning toxic firefighting foam. New laws are needed to prohibit this risky practice, and protect the community's health."

She also termed the DEC release sent Monday a "very misleading statement by NY DEC Note the Bennington College PFAS results are different from upwind and downwind from Norlite," indicating they aren't indicative of "background" levels — the amount of a substance that could be expected in soil and water throughout an entire region from multiple sources.

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PFOA, for instance, is believed to travel through the atmosphere from sites around the globe, and nearly all humans are believed to have at least a trace of the chemical in their blood. The earliest of this group of chemicals began being used in industry in the 1950s. They were found in a range of consumer and other products, as well as in firefighting foam used at airports and firefighter training sites.

Enck added that "Norlite shut down on their own because they are installing new scrubbers, not due to any DEC enforcement action. DEC has an on-site monitor at Norlite. Norlite burned AFFF in 2018 and 2019, so I don't know why DEC `discovered' this in late 2019."

Asked to respond further to comments in the college group's release, the DEC released a statement later Monday, saying, "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."

The statement added, "DEC is currently reviewing information provided by the facility regarding the amounts of AFFF incinerated by this facility prior to its shut down in Dec. 2019, as part of the ongoing permitting and regulatory investigation underway, and additional actions will be taken if necessary."

Test results

Professors and students took soil and surface water samples on March 3 "from relatively undisturbed sites in neighborhoods around the Norlite plant," the release states. "The samples were sent to EuroFins, a commercial laboratory that analyzed them for a wide array of perflouinated compounds (PFAS) 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."

Other findings in the testing report included, that "PFAS compounds that make up 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 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 composition of PFAS contamination elsewhere in the region."

The testing report concludes, "Together, these findings suggest incineration of AFFF at Norlite is not destroying toxic PFAS compounds. More research is needed to better understand the local and regional fallout of PFAS from the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator. Until there is clear evidence that proper incineration destroys PFAS toxins, AFFF should not be burned."

The full results have been posted by CAPA at Bennington College at

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien     


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