This environmental justice conflict stems from the industrial rotary kiln "Norlite" in Cohoes, NY, burning Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam/Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) in 2018 and 2019 . Norlite has been operating on South Saratoga Street in Cohoes, NY -- a city of 16,500 people eight miles North of Albany -- since the 1950's . However, Norlite is now a subsidiary of "Tradebe," which is a waste management company based in Barcelona, Spain. Tradebe operates in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Oman . Generally, Norlite acts as an (aforementioned) industrial rotary kiln to produce aggregate shale, mainly used in construction. The mining for this shale occurs in an on-site quarry, in Cohoes, NY, and Norlite's aggregate shale has been used in projects ranging from the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore Maryland .
However, this specific issue of environmental injustice revolves around the incineration of AFFF at Norlite. The Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (used to put out industrial-sized fires) was supplied by the US Department of Defense, which was hoping to dispose of this waste that had been sitting dormant on military bases prior to being contracted out to Norlite (for incineration). This foam came from the Marines, the Army and the Navy . Prior to the year 2000, all military-grade AFFF used long-chain PFOS chemicals; however, in recent years the Department of Defense has utilized AFFF comprised of shorter-chain fluorochemicals. Unfortunately, this "short-chain" AFFF is similarly persistent in the natural environment, and has even higher mobility in ground water . Fluorine-free flame suppressants are becoming more readily available for use against high-temperature fires (especially outside of the United States), yet the United States Military remains, requiring of the presence of fluorines in the foam that they use .
Norlite signed a $2.2 million dollar contract with the Department of Defense (through the Defense Logistics Agency ) to incinerate this foam , and are one of several commercial waste incinerators spanning the country that has been tapped to dispose of the several millions of gallons of AFFF stored at multiple military bases . The Department of Defense is the nation's largest single user of AFFF, comprising 75% of the country's total use . AFFF contains toxic perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) like PFOA and PFOS . This class of chemicals is most commonly used to make products "non-stick," waterproof, and stain-resistant, and can be found in rain jackets, cookware, and dental floss . These chemicals, when present near human activity, have been linked to causation of testicular, kidney and bladder cancer . Exposure to these chemicals has also been known to result in liver disease and infertility . Soil and surface water samples from around the Norlite plant were found to contain PFAS chemicals  -- partially due to the very nature of "PFAS" chemicals, seeing as their atomic chains are incredibly strong, and last "forever." This was also partially due to the fact that to get even close to complete combustion of these chemicals, they must be incinerated at around 1,400 degrees Celsius -- Norlite was burning them at a maximum of 800 degrees Celsius . Finally, AFFF is a flame suppressant. By its very nature, complete combustion of AFFF through incineration is nearly impossible, and is not "safe or sensible" . None of this is surprising, given that from the onset, commercial waste facilities are likely to fail when attempting to successfully incinerate fluorochemicals -- the high temperatures and elongated holding time of these chemicals are a recipe for incomplete combustion, especially when the combustion process is taking place in a facility that is not used to dealing with disposal of these chemicals . The attempted incineration of AFFF can also lead to the creation of smaller PFAS products: ones that the scientific community know how to handle even less than the already-difficult and dangerous chemical chains found in undisturbed AFFF .
Norlite sits in a designated "Potential Environmental Justice Community" as deemed by the state of New York , and is 1,000 feet away from a public housing complex called "Saratoga Sites." According to a ProPublica report last copyrighted in 2019, out of the 331 residents living in Saratoga Sites and another HUD-controlled Cohoes Public Housing Complex "Roulier Heights," 54% of the residents living in these two public housing complexes are making below 30% of the area's median income . 9% of these residents identify as being of minority status (which falls in line with the racial makeup of the town, seeing as Cohoes is 82.5% Non-Hispanic white, 3.11% Hispanic white, 5.86% multiracial, and 4.73% Black or African-American ). The Department of Defense is well aware of the largely unsatisfactory nature of incinerating PFAS chemicals at Norlite (both in terms of damage to the natural environment and damage to human health) , yet they chose to go ahead and incinerate these chemicals, using a public housing complex as both a laboratory and a potential graveyard.
Norlite was burning AFFF unbeknownst to the primarily low-income residents that inhabit the neighborhood around it (which is formally zoned as "medium industrial") . On top of the detrimental health effects that AFFF can result in, Saratoga Sites residents (even prior to the burning of AFFF) complained about massive amounts of dust (from the on-site mining of shale that occurs at Norlite year-round) that settles on their cars and on (and even inside of) their homes, snow blackened by soot (rendering it un-playable for chilidren) and vibrations from the blasting occurring at these on-site mines. Residents are also concerned about strange "acetone-like" smells coming from Norlite . Even New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Chair Basil Seggos said, "Folks in Saratoga (Sites) for decades have been complaining about the smells and the booms from the excavation over there" . Saratoga Sites residents are also frustrated by the fact that they have "not received a dime" of the fines that Norlite has had to pay out for violating state and federal environmental policy in the past . Norlite has previously been fined for exceeding the pollution and mercury levels on their permits, that has then has been dumped into the Mohawk River and emitted into the atmosphere .
One member of the Sierra Club's Clean Air Team, Jane Williams, was the one to break this information about Norlite burning AFFF, through a "Freedom of Information Act" (FOIA) request to the Department of Defense . Once this information was brought to the public, immediate mobilization took place. The compounded injury of AFFF burning, on top of years of community anger and distrust of Norlite, brought forth calls to shut Norlite down...forever. Attention was brought to this issue through public demonstrations, the use of independent and mainstream media, calls to local and state-wide elected officials, and the filing of lawsuits. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizing around this environmental justice issue had to be extra intentional, specific, and safe. While there were "socially-distanced" protests outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo's mansion in Albany, NY , a lot of organizing and advocacy work was online -- through virtual "Norlite Town Hall Meetings," news articles, Letters to the Editor in the Albany Times Union, and podcasts/radio programs. The COVID-19 pandemic not only created more barriers around fighting this issue but also added to the issue itself -- human interaction with PFAS chemicals suppress the human immune system , creating more vulnerabilities to COVID-19 in the primarily low-income, already-vulnerable residents surrounding Norlite.
A major case was filed by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and other parties in federal court, alleging that the burning of AFFF violated the National Environmental Policy Act  and the National Defense Authorization Act . NEPA almost always insures that an environmental impact statement is thoughtfully crafted before any potentially-harmful, human-caused recurring activity, however, this did not happen... simply because the Department of Defense chose to violate federal law . In late April of 2020, the Cohoes Common Council passed a one-year moratorium of the burning of AFFF in Cohoes, fresh off of the release of a Bennington College-backed study led by Dr. David Bond. This study revealed significant levels of toxic chemicals in soil and water samples around the Norlite plant  -- on March 3, 2020, Dr. Bond, Bennington College students, and other professors took these aforementioned soil and water samples, and sent them off to the commercial laboratory "EuroFins." These tests revealed much higher concentrations of PFAS chemicals around the Norlite Plant than in areas further away from the plant, and revealed not only many of the 50 "testable" perfluorinated compounds, but also significantly more of these perfluorinated compounds (than the previous 50) that are not even able to be tested for .
After this law was passed in Cohoes, the "Norlite Bill" ( a bill banning the incineration of AFFF and other perfluorinated compounds in certain cities) unanimously passed the New York State Assembly and Senate , and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation passed an administrative ban on the burning of AFFF , Norlite reported to have cancelled their contract with the Department of Defense. In October of 2020, NY DEC Chair Seggos said that recent testing Cohoes drinking water revealed no PFAS contamination  -- something that directly contradicts the Bennington College study.
Residents of Saratoga Sites, the city of Cohoes, and the Capital Region of New York await for the final signature from Governor Andrew Cuomo that would finalize the Norlite Bill, legally banning the burning of AFFF in different parts of New York. Although Norlite is not currently burning AFFF, the environmental justice community residing in Cohoes wants a permanent, definitive end to the blatant flippancy and disregard for their quality of life that Norlite has shown time and time again.