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Persistent Pollutants

New York agency says incineration of firefighting foam didn’t spread PFAS

Advocacy groups says study is flawed and inconclusive

by Cheryl Hogue
March 18, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 10

Photo shows the Norlite aggregate manufacturing plant as seen between brick housing units.
Credit: David Bond/Bennington College
The Norlite plant in Cohoes, New York, has stopped burning PFAS-containing firefighting foam.

Combustion of firefighting foams at a facility in upstate New York did not spread per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment, a report from the state says.

But community and environmental advocacy groups say the analysis by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is flawed and that its results are not conclusive.

The DEC says it “found no clearly discernible pattern of aerial deposition” of PFAS that could be traced to the combustion of PFAS-containing foams. PFAS are synthetic, environmentally persistent chemicals, and many of them are toxic. The DEC finding contrasts with other data, released last April, that suggest burning the foams at a licensed hazardous waste facility in Cohoes, New York, spread PFAS via the facility’s exhaust.

The DEC reports it did not find a gradient of decreasing PFAS concentrations downwind of the facility. Such a gradient could have indicated the plant was releasing these “forever chemicals.”

“Cohoes and other nearby communities are not at risk” from the PFAS foams combusted in the waste facility’s two kilns, which are operated by ceramic aggregate maker Norlite, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos says in a March 9 news release.

In a March 17 letter to DEC, advocacy groups and a Bennington College researcher who produced the earlier data say the DEC data actually show elevated levels of PFAS downwind of the Norlite plant.

In addition, “almost all of the soil samples in DEC’s study appear to be taken within about [0.8 km] from Norlite,” the letter says.” It’s hard to discern comprehensive emission patterns when you are that zoomed in,” the letter says, noting that airborne PFAS can travel long distances from where the chemicals are released.

Meanwhile, the chemical industry sees the DEC’s findings as a positive development for PFAS use.

“The robust analysis conducted by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) supports the case that these [chemicals] can be safely managed when no longer in use,” says a statement from the American Chemistry Council, the largest association of chemical manufacturers in the US.



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