Toxic PFAS Fallout Found Near Incinerator in Upstate New York

PFAS contamination was found in soil and water near an incinerator in New York state that has been burning firefighting foam for the Department of Defense.

Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Industrial chemicals known as PFAS have contaminated soil and water near an incinerator in upstate New York that has been burning firefighting foam. The facility is run by Norlite, whose parent company Tradebe contracted with the Department of Defense to burn the foam known as AFFF, as The Intercept reported in January 2019.

The analysis of three soil and four water samples collected near the Norlite incinerator in Cohoes, New York, which appears to be the first environmental testing done near an AFFF incineration site, revealed the presence of 10 PFAS compounds that have been associated with the foam. The levels of the chemicals in soil and water declined with distance from the plant, and measurements of PFOS, a compound that has been widely used in firefighting foam, were twice as high downwind from the facility than upwind of it, according to David Bond, a professor of environmental studies at Bennington College, who conducted the testing with some of his students.

“All of this provides a strong indication of airborne deposition of PFAS from ineffective incineration of AFFF at the Norlite facility,” said Bond.

Despite evidence that burning the firefighting foam posed health risks, the military  has turned to incineration of as a way of disposing of millions of gallons of AFFF in recent years. The foam, which has been used for decades to put out jet fuel fires, long contained both PFOA and PFOS, as The Intercept reported in 2015. Widespread use of the foam that contained these extremely persistent chemicals, which are associated with kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and many other health problems, resulted in contamination of drinking water across the country. In 2016, the Department of Defense decided to stop using PFOS and PFOA in AFFF, but continued using a newer formulation of the foam that contains closely related compounds in the same class.

States, localities, and fire departments, which have used AFFF made to military specifications for decades, have also begun to send their excess foam to incinerators. At a press conference yesterday, Cohoes Mayor William Keeler said that 25 states have been sending AFFF to the Norlite facility. The hope is that the foam could be safely incinerated at extremely high temperatures. But the testing done near the Norlite incinerator, which is less than 200 meters from a public housing complex that is home to more than 70 families, suggests otherwise.

“Far from destroying PFAS, the Norlite plant appears to be raining down a witches’ brew of PFAS compounds on the poor and working class neighborhoods of Cohoes,” said Bond.

Although, in a 2017 request for proposals, the Air Force made it clear that it believed “no satisfactory disposal method has been identified” for AFFF and that its incineration may not fully destroy PFAS in the foam and may create dangerous byproducts, the Defense Department in November 2018 entered into two contracts with Tradebe, which is based in Indiana, to incinerate more than 1 million gallons of stockpiled foam that had been collected from the Army, Navy, National Guard, and Marine installations in Italy, Spain, Bahrain, Greece, Romania, Japan, Korea, Cuba, and Djibouti.

Public records indicate that Tradebe also separately contracted with the Defense Logistics Agency for hazardous waste treatment and disposal as recently as January. Tradebe did not respond to inquiries from The Intercept about whether that most recent contract, worth $15,743, was for the incineration of AFFF.

Judith Enck, a visiting professor and senior fellow at Bennington College who has been working on PFAS, said that the contamination near the Norlite facility should raise alarms both about the company and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which she said failed to provide proper oversight. “There was essentially no environmental review and no test burning done in advance.”

In a statement, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation wrote 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 also pointed out that the facility, which is temporarily closed while it is installing new scrubbers, “is not currently incinerating this waste” and that “DEC’s on-site monitor is providing strict oversight of this facility to ensure all operations are protective of human health and the environment.”

The DEC statement also notes that it discovered the burning of PFAS waste at the Norlite facility “in late 2019,” while Enck said the state likely knew about the incineration much earlier. Noting that the DEC has an on-site monitor stationed at the Norlite facility, Enck said “It would be very odd if the DEC staff person didn’t know it was being burned in 2018.”

Tradebe did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

The residents of Cohoes aren’t the only people plagued by the environmental dilemma of disposing of dangerous chemicals that were designed not to burn. In February, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club sued the Department of Defense over the incineration of AFFF on behalf of people living near sites where the military authorized the incineration of AFFF, including East Liverpool, Ohio; Port Arthur, Texas; and Metro East, an area of Illinois east of St. Louis, Missouri. The suit argued that the Department of Defense had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Defense Authorization Act by failing to conduct any environmental reviews “before approving the incineration of millions of gallons of toxic firefighting foam.” A hazardous waste incinerator in Arkansas owned by Veolia has also received some of the AFFF for incineration.

Many more communities are likely to be affected, according to Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has been tracking the incineration of the firefighting foam. “States across the U.S. are looking at AFFF as a hot potato, collecting it and sending it to municipal waste incinerators, landfills, and deep-well injection sites,” said Williams. “This stuff is going all over the place. It’s a free for all.”

Update: May 19, 2020

On May 14, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sent a letter to Bond and Enck critiquing their study. The state environmental agency called Bond and Enck’s conclusions and the data on which they are based “deeply flawed and incomplete” and argued that the study “did not establish downwind PFAS impacts” of AFFF incineration.

Asked about the letter, Bond emphasized New York’s failure to do its own research on the safety of incinerating the firefighting foam. “They spend far more time trying to discredit our study that going out to do the research that’s needed,” said Bond. “DEC is reacting, they’re not leading on this.” 

The state agency insists it is working on the issue and has temporarily ordered the facility not to continue burning the firefighting foam. “DEC is collaborating with partners, including U.S. EPA emission measurement experts and the State Department of Health, to explore the options available to study and analyze the safe disposal of AFFF,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept. “Until these options are identified and evaluated and we are confident incineration is a safe disposal method, DEC has directed Norlite to conduct no incineration of AFFF.”

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