Battling Hazardous Waste Incineration

By Tom Ellis

COHOES: Lights Out Norlite, NATURE Lab, Saratoga Sites Against Norlite Emissions, and the Hudson Mohawk Environmental Action Network held a virtual Hazardous Waste School on December 16 at which four hazardous waste experts discussed various aspects of the issue. The program concerned the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator in Cohoes.

Bruce Buckheit worked for the federal government from 1984-2003 helping enforce the Clean Air Act. He was Senior Counsel in the Environmental Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice, and later Deputy Director and Director of the Air Enforcement Division of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

He said that when battling hazardous waste incineration, begin fighting as soon as you become aware of it. Hazardous waste incinerator emissions, he said, vary widely depending on what all is being burned.

Hazardous waste incinerator companies, he said, can help assure results of required stack tests suit their needs. They hire the testing company, control the date of the test, and determine what gets burned that day. Stack tests are like a “beauty pageant” in that the incinerator company presents itself at its very best for the few hours the tests are conducted once every year or several years.

Incineration performance, he said, depends on the fuel quality, operational stability, and pollution control efficiency. Fuel quality, he said, should be checked randomly and frequently; temperatures that are too high can cause the manufacture and release of dioxins and furans, while temperates too low lead to products of incomplete combustion. When pollution controls fail, even briefly, operational efficiency can drop from 99.9 percent to 20 percent.

He said federal and state governments perform cursory checks of incinerators, and he urged Cohoes residents to pressure the EPA to conduct a community health assessment.

Dioxin, he said, is very difficult to control and very toxic at low levels, Norlite has a relatively low stack height of only 130 feet. How polluted the aggregate is, he said, depends on what is being burned; if Mercury, Mercury will be in the aggregate. He said test burns are supposed to represent a “reasonable worst case” and Norlite likely knows what is coming in to be burned on certain days, so it can game the system (stack test) to help assure favorable results.

Jane Williams is an environmental economist with 30 years experience working on air pollution and hazardous waste incineration. She is the Chair of the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Team and Director of California Communities Against Toxics. She said New York Stare Is sort of a permit-free and enforcement-free zone.

Jim Pew is a staff attorney in the Washington DC Earthjustice office. His litigation against EPA resulted in EPA issuing its existing rules limiting emissions of hazardous air pollutants and criteria pollutants from kilns and incinerators burning hazardous wastes.

Discussing regulatory issues, he said testing procedures are inadequate, and even if a kiln is in compliance with its permit conditions, it is still not a safe operation. He said EPA emissions standards are not health based but actually technology standards, and EPA acknowledges this. EPA, he said, combined Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Clean Air Act standards together, rather than requiring compliance with both, and the standard is weak.

Stack tests, he said, are conducted every few years, and no one should trust the regulations to keep them safe from Norlite emissions. He recommended the Biden Administration upgrade standards to what the law requires and conduct a community health assessment in Cohoes.

Bruce Buckheit said EPA has a culture such that the agency is unlikely to take a safety approach. “What you don’t measure, you don’t deal with,” he said.

Neil Carman, a 1980-1992 Texas state regulator, conducted 200 annual inspections for the Texas Air Control Board. Since then he has worked for the Texas Sierra Club and the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. He has a Ph.D. In botany.

As a state regulator, he became concerned about dioxins and was often told to not make waves. During the 1980s, he said, there was a big EPA push for incineration in cement kilns. “Commercial operations,” he said, “are horrific because they burn pages and pages of these waste codes.” Cement kilns, he said, are pseudo incinerators, and during upset (malfunctions) conditions, results are worse.

He said a Lafarge incinerator in Alpena, Michigan may have poisoned fish in Lake Huron. Lafarge, he said, had a facility south of Austin. Texas lawmakers enacted new legislation banning hazardous waste incineration within a half-mile of residential neighborhoods if the corporation did not possess a specified federal permit.

“The only good incinerator,” he said, “is one that is not operating.” He said many poisons are not tested at all, much that is emitted is not burned at all, and hazardous waste incineration can involve hundreds or thousands of chemicals.

Alternatives to incineration and landfilling exist. Some chemicals can be dechlorinated to break down materials. “Incineration is insanity,” he said, and many businesses work diligently to generate less hazardous wastes.

Jim Pew has researched alternatives to incineration and open burning of wastes by the US military. Supercritical water oxidation, he said, is a mature technology to destroy hazardous wastes. Many in the incineration and cement industries, he said, do not want safer alternatives.

Judith Enck asked if we could get continuous emissions monitoring, what would we test for. Mr. Carman said sampling devices exist and samples taken should be tested carefully in labs, and dioxins can be tested at less than one part per trillion (ppt). He said he does not like pounds-per-hour emission limits because they allow for giant short-term spikes, and Norlite should not be incinerating chlorinated chemicals.

Joe Ritchie, who lives 100 feet from the Norlite property line and 500 feet from the stack, said he sees a fine layer of dust on his car every day, the smell is unbearable, and dust storms over the Norlite neighborhood are visible form a half-mile away. Mr. Carman said “it is criminal to be exposed to all this toxicity” that gets in the lungs and blood stream. He urged Joe and others to complain every day and said “I was always amazed at how much noncompliance there was.” He said Norlite’s hazardous waste permit should be revoked.

Jane Williams said the original federal Clean Air Act and 1990 amendments put limits on air pollution. Air pollution control, she said, is like a series of black boxes that include filters, scrubbers, and bag houses. She said Norlite could reduce emissions, the factory is highly engineered, and Norlite operates out of compliance perhaps because it is a Spanish company based in a nation with a weak culture of compliance. She said she has examined 20 years of Norlite data, Norlite began burning hazardous waste in the late 1970s, Norlite is refusing to comply, Norlite burned mixed wastes (both hazardous and radioactive) during the term of the first President Bush, and Norlite has been problematic for a long time.

Ms. Williams urged residents to take hair samples and have them tested for metals, as was done in Los Angeles with 20 people who lived in a community with four foundries. She urged that a metals analysis be conducted, said much has been emitted over many years, and the metals are still in the community because the stack is so low.

Ms. Williams said first responders at a 3-day AFFF fire in Houston were seriously contaminated. It is hard to believe, she said, that Norlite could operate as it has all these years in a state like New York. Many states, she said, view themselves more as waste managers than health protectors. New York State regulators, she said, are lap dogs more than watch dogs, and “You will not be able to control what Norlite burns; it must be closed.” She and Neil Carman help people all across the United States and “We are here to help.”

Mark Dunlea asked the panelists what strategy they recommended to close Norlite. Ms. Williams recommend a “wild dog strategy” of attack every permit, unleash every strategy, do everything, do it at once. “You never know which one won.”

Mr. Carman said focus on the toxics coming from the Norlite stack. Even if it is not in the lungs it is on the ground and will get tracked into homes and attics, and on roofs.

A man said there is a pond on the Norlite property that is pumped out a few times a year into the Hudson River. Mr. Carman said it is not safe, fugitive dust on the Norlite grounds blows into the community and asked what types of dust inspections occur.

Jennifer, who lives in public housing next to Norlite, said her son has asthma, and she cannot afford to move. Mr. Carman urged her to complain to US Housing and Urban Development officials, issue a news release, and said testing the children’s hair for metals may provide powerful evidence. He urged that DEC be required to analyze citizen-collected dust samples.

Published in February/March 2021
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