and Colonie residents took a look at big industry in their
backyard, and what they found is not pretty
Photographs By Ellen Descisciolo
My father built this house, I grew up in this house,
says Tania Knight, leaning over her kitchen table. Next
door is my grandfather and across the street, my uncle.
short dead-end street in Cohoes is nestled just off 787
near the border with Colonie. The homes are modest, and
the neighbors all know each other; most people who live
there stay there, much like Tania and her family. There’s
a creek that runs behind the houses, a 70-year-old hot dog
stand at the top of the block, and a continual plume streaming
from the twin smokestacks of Norlite Aggregate that drifts
over the neighborhood.
Norlite produces a lightweight aggregate used as a concrete
substitute or as fill in projects like building parking
lots. It’s made from shale that’s mined on site, then melted
and expanded in two huge kilns. And living near those kilns
is no picnic.
One day this summer Tania Knight snapped. She’d had enough
of the black, oily grit coating her house and her new white
car. She was fed up with the incessant noise. She’d seen
one too many tanker trucks. She was sick of looking out
of her windows to see those ever-billowing stacks from Norlite
and worrying what she was breathing.
Then she heard a story about a worker at Norlite who ended
up in Albany Medical Center with sores and skin conditions
due to toxic exposure. And Citizens’ Environmental Coalition,
a statewide grassroots group that takes on big polluters,
was contacted about the incident and called Knight on a
tip that her family had been openly critical of Norlite
in the past.
As Knight learned she wasn’t alone in her concerns, her
arsenal of questions and complaints bubbled to the surface.
“I’d just had it,” she explains. For “everybody that’s lived
here as long as I have, it’s just like a thorn in their
side.” She began canvassing the neighborhood looking for
like-minded residents, putting up a series of fliers on
the streets near hers, and neighbors started to flood her
with calls. She struck a nerve.
Locals started coming forward with many common concerns:
the pervasive black dust, noise late at night, big trucks
on narrow roads, and more general concerns about hazardous
emissions and health problems.
major concern is the dust, because my baby plays in the
yard, and every morning you go out and his toys are covered
with the dust,” says Terry Magnotta. “I don’t sleep with
my windows open because you wake up in the morning after
sleeping with the windows open, your nose is just filled
with black goo. . . .You take a shower and you still feel
dirty. It’s got to be embedded in your skin.”
Magnotta also loses a lot of sleep because of the incessant
noise, which she described as a “chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk.”
She was up until 4:30 in the morning the night before we
spoke, and said that’s not too unusual. “It goes on all
night long . . . . I have to turn the television on and
fall asleep to the TV,” she laments.
In a letter responding to public concerns during a permit
review in 1992, DEC Region 4 permit administrator William
Clark wrote, “The past poor performance of Norlite on dust
and noise control is not in dispute.” However, Clark’s letter
also noted that “the kilns are run continuously as their
high temperatures do not allow for daily shutdowns.”
Norlite’s trucks frequent narrow, residential Elm Street,
and although ones containing hazardous materials are told
not to, residents claim they’ve seen those trucks on the
street as well. Some people living on Elm won’t let their
children walk to school just around the corner because there
is no sidewalk and there are too many trucks. A few weeks
ago, one truck took a large chunk of a telephone pole out
trying to turn onto Elm, and residents worry that the accident
could have been much worse.
The dust is visible, and the noise can be controlled somewhat,
but it’s what they can’t see or smell that really scares
the residents. When Norlite transfers waste material from
tankers or drums into its massive holding tanks, gasses
Kathleen Curtis, CEC’s executive director, explains that
with every transfer of hazardous material from a tanker
to a holding tank, some emissions are released. “You know
how when you pump gas, and you can smell the gas when you’re
pumping it, well multiply that by a whole lot and you’ll
get a sense of what fugitive emissions are like escaping
into the immediate neighborhood.”
There is also concern about what’s in the Salt Kill, which
runs through Norlite and then behind the short side streets
off of Route 32 and is where Norlite sends its treated wastewater.
Residents say it looks awfully green sometimes and occasionally
floods the area. Last December, Knight remembers the water
“came up over the embankment and flooded our basements.”
It took about four days for the cleanup team to start work,
and by then her basement had been taken over by mold, something
that surprised even the workers. “They came in in haz-mat
suits!” recalls Knight.
Over the summer, the Knights were building a pond in their
backyard, and her son “was getting rocks out of it and it
was burning his hands.” Another neighbor’s yard was flooded,
and “the water came up and burned all of her grass,” Knight
says, pointing to a picture of what was once a lawn. “She
was eating berries [from her yard] and woke up and had sores
all over her mouth.”
Over the years, residents liv- ing near the Norlite plant
have periodically taken it upon themselves to confront the
issue. Tania Knight’s mother and aunt once successfully
circulated petitions requesting Norlite’s aggregate trucks
to be covered in transit, and a local candidate once ran
on issues related to Norlite. But most of the problems persist.
“Norlite’s a really tough company to fight, we’re finding
out,” says Knight. “Little pockets will pop up now and then
with people really getting fed up and trying to do something
about it.” Most of these efforts simply fizzle out.
But this fall, Knight took it a step further: She cofounded
Citizens Halting Risks of Norlite’s Industrial Chemicals
(CHRONIC), a formal group of neighbors who want answers
about the plant’s pollution and its potentially dangerous
consequences. “We’ve never had a group like this before,”
Knight says. “Now all of a sudden, there’s almost 80 of
us,” and that’s in just a few months of work.
close for comfort: Norlite's twin stacks hover above
an outgoing and resilient sort, nearly fearless in her willingness
to confront both the company and local officials, and she
quickly became the spokeswoman for CHRONIC, which now meets
almost every week in one form or another. She spends almost
all of her spare minutes researching Norlite and keeping
in touch with local officials, the company, and New York’s
Department of Environmental Conservation—that is as many
spare minutes a single mother of two, hairdresser, and paralegal
student can possibly have.
Some people Knight encounters believe with almost patriotic
fervor that Norlite runs a clean operation. Others will
not speak for fear of some form of repercussions from the
company. But with most conversations come more reasons to
seek answers: One woman in Saratoga Sites dropped a magnet
outside her house and it attracted the dirt. Another family
power-washes their home weekly to get rid of the grit.
The initial answers that CHRONIC members have gotten about
Norlite have done nothing to ease their fears. The Norlite
Corporation has been in Cohoes for more than 60 years; in
1979 and again in 1981, it obtained permits to fire its
kilns by burning hazardous waste and low-grade fuel.
Ironically, says Curtis, “Norlite makes more money accepting
and burning hazardous waste as their fuel than they make
making the actual aggregate and lightweight concrete product
that they’re supposedly in business to make. They’re calling
it a cement kiln, but what it really is is a hazardous-waste
Norlite is allowed to release a certain number of pounds
per hour of various elements and compounds, not the least
of which are antimony, arsenic, mercury, lead, toluene,
and chlorides, all of which are known to have dire public-health
consequences when released in certain concentrations. Curtis
sees this as “just permitted pollution.”
Curtis puts the quantities simply: “Almost 9 million pounds
of volatile organic compounds go through there a year. .
. . Let’s say you get a 99-percent efficiency, that still
leaves almost 90,000 pounds of toxic chemicals coming out
of the stack every year.”
Norlite’s Title V air permit is what allows the plant to
burn hazardous materials, and it’s renewed every five years.
Such permits are tough to do much about once they are issued.
Curtis says that companies “push for as much as they can
get permission legally to do in this permitting process.
And, boy, once they get the permit, not only does nobody
ever check up to see if they’re complying with it, but it’s
rubber stamped from then on out.”
This was an unwelcome surprise for many CHRONIC members.
“I lived here my whole life and never knew they burned hazardous
waste,” says Knight.
It does not reassure the members of CHRONIC any to know
that Norlite has a history of permit violations or that
its parent company and current owner, United Oil Recovery,
has a superfund site in Meriden, Conn. Knight wonders what
would make its practices any different in Cohoes. “It’s
the same company, it’s the same people,” she points out.
United Oil Recovery has owned Norlite for about five years,
however, and has been able to distance itself somewhat from
But the documented problems aren’t all in the distant past.
Last year, Norlite pled guilty to illegally dumping hazardous
material into a storm drain between January 1999 and October
2000 and failing to report it to the state. Norlite was
fined $200,000, had to create the position of vice president
of environmental affairs, install a permanent storm water
treatment system, allow an independent review of its hazardous-waste
operations, improve its dust controls, and allow the state
to better access to monitor its operations as part of the
The members of CHRONIC insist they do not want Norlite to
shut down, but they adamantly oppose the facility burning
hazardous waste, and want the company to behave responsibly.
To CHRONIC’s Magnotta, it’s the bottom line that drives
Norlite’s actions. “The hazardous waste is just a money
maker for them, and it’s putting us all at risk in our community
just so they can make a buck.”
Norlite’s Title V is up for renewal at the end of the month,
and its EPA permit for hazardous waste disposal is up for
renewal in the spring. CHRONIC hopes to be granted a public-comment
period so it can have some input in the process. In the
past, the residents were unaware of public-comment periods
or hearings about Norlite, which were advertised with tiny
and obscurely worded fliers in the library.
Residents have long won- dered if Norlite’s activities could
be harmful to their health, but the new revelations about
Norlite’s emissions have fueled their suspicions.
Although there has not been a formal health assessment done
in the area, CHRONIC has been asking around on its own.
On Tania Knight’s short street, there are seven cases of
cancer out of six houses. “On this street alone there are
three of us that have endometriosis,” says Knight, pointing
to houses on her street. “My aunt has blood pressure that
nobody else in our family has, where it spikes up and goes
down, spikes up and goes down. Over in the projects [Saratoga
Sites sits directly beneath the stacks], every person in
[one woman’s] family has some type of cancer.”
At Saratoga Sites, kids “are on nebulizers. They have behavioral
problems. There’s a 15-month-old baby with chronic nosebleeds.
There’s a 7-year-old with kidney failure.” Besides which,
Knight says, “everyone was suffering from chronic headaches.
If you stand over in Saratoga Sites for more than an hour,
you don’t need to take a test. You’ll feel lightheaded,
you’ll get a scratchy throat.”
She had always thought her own headaches were “because I
lead a very crazy life: two dogs, two kids, going to school,
going to work.”
In one of Knight’s first conversations with Norlite plant
manager Tim Lachelle, he assured her “they were up to state
standard.” Knight responded, “Well maybe you are, but that’s
not stopping the dust, that’s not stopping people from getting
It is difficult to prove whether or not Norlite is the cause
of these conditions, but suspicions are strong. Knight feels
the burden of proof should not be on the public. “I think
it’s fair for them to prove to us that they’re not causing
At the end of July, Norlite’s Lachelle wrote to Knight expressing
his interest in better communication with the plant’s neighbors
and said “the first step in this process is to identify
the material that is on your home and car, and on your neighbor’s
Samples of the gritty dust were taken from the Knights’
property in August by both Norlite’s hired testing firm
and DEC. DEC reported that “approximately 80 percent of
the particulate in this sample is expanded shale,” in other
words, Norlite’s aggregate. Norlite’s testing did not come
to the same conclusion. DEC also tested the grit on Knight’s
car, and found that it contained a different oil-based soot,
which DEC suggests was picked up elsewhere. The members
of CHRONIC, however, say it’s the same black gritty dust
that they have at their homes.
In the meantime, CHRONIC members have learned how to do
some testing for themselves. They have formed what is called
a “bucket brigade” to collect air samples for testing, thanks
to a grant from CEC. They are using a process involving
airtight five-gallon buckets and heavy-duty Tedlar bags,
a method developed by a California environmental engineering
firm at the request of Edward Masry, Erin Brockovich’s boss.
The EPA recognizes it as an accurate means of taking samples.
The bucket brigade has inflamed tensions between CHRONIC
and the company. Norlite was explicitly told it was not
invited to attend the first bucket-brigade meeting, but
some of the company’s bigwigs came anyway—president David
Carabetta and vice president of environmental affairs William
Morris even drove up from Connecticut.
showed up wearing flannel shirts and jeans,” and wouldn’t
leave, according to Knight. “Tim Lachelle said . . . he
thought it was a good idea for them to participate because
they could tell us when to take the tests,” she says, laughing
at the idea. “That’s just how ludicrous it was. I feel like
just because we’re normal everyday citizens people look
at us like we don’t have a brain.”
According to Cohoes Mayor John T. McDonald III, “Norlite
expressed concerns about the bucket brigade as being a legitimate
testing method, and . . . is it being done in a truly double
blind study or is it being done with a individual that might
have [an] agenda. . . . Obviously they have some kind of
agenda, they’re concerned with what goes on there.” He agreed
that Norlite has an agenda as well.
Both CHRONIC and CEC believe Norlite showed up only to do
damage control. “If they’re all up to par and they’re operating
under the regulations like they’re supposed to, what do
they care if we’re running around?” asks Knight.
Neither Tim Lachelle, Norlite’s plant manager, nor Anthony
Kokocki, Norlite’s on-site DEC monitor, returned Metroland’s
calls for this article.
An initial bucket-brigade result came in last week from
a lab in California, showing higher than normal amounts
of methyl chloride, a formerly common refrigerant that is
still found in some pesticides. Though the amount was below
the state’s screening level, it was enough to prove CHRONIC’s
point that fugitive emissions can be present beyond Norlite’s
CHRONIC wanted to have candid conversations with Norlite
as well as with town and county officials. So early on,
Tania Knight took to the phones, requesting meetings with
all of the interested parties. She asked for tests, and
met with the mayor. And she kept in contact via e-mail,
telephone, mail and even in person with both Lachelle and
But getting answers didn’t turn out to be very easy.
After the bucket-brigade altercation, things became less
cordial between Norlite and CHRONIC. No one came to a CHRONIC-organized
roundtable in Maplewood in October except representatives
of CEC and Albany County Legislator Sean Ward from Green
Island. After many tense negotiations, Norlite, CHRONIC,
DEC, CEC and officials from Cohoes, Colonie and Green Island
sat down before Thanksgiving.
duty: Tania Knight demonstrates bucket brigade sampling.
you would surmise, both parties are coming from two different
angles, and they couldn’t be more widely divergent,” says
As far as the noise goes, McDonald says Norlite is “not
violating the noise ordinance, but it is becoming a nuisance
to the neighborhood.” Furthermore, he reported that Norlite’s
environmental engineer insists that the smokestack emissions
are not falling directly on the properties nearest to the
plant, though CHRONIC members say on many nights they’ve
seen clouds just settle below the stacks.
CEC’s Roberta Chase went to the meeting and discussed the
possibility of continuous ambient air monitoring, something
CHRONIC deems absolutely necessary. The members of CHRONIC
are pleased they had an opportunity to air their concerns,
but many members felt slighted, saying the mayor frequently
cut off anyone who was not Knight.
In many residents’ minds, the more productive meeting was
two days earlier, between DEC, CHRONIC and CEC to discuss
possible strategies. CEC’s Curtis left that meeting impressed.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ve never
sat in a room with 15 DEC staff that were there to answer
any question I had. OK? The level of cooperation sectorwide—I
could never get that for Eastman Kodak’s hazardous-waste
incinerator in Rochester. . . . I think there’s some serious
regret [at DEC] about having given [Norlite] a permit to
Some of the simpler issues, such as the noise and the truck
routing, are being addressed already. Colonie is addressing
the truck traffic with the creation of a bypass that should
be usable by 2005. Norlite is conducting a noise survey
to determine where the noise is coming from, and apparently
seems interested in fixing that to the degree that is possible.
But bigger questions about long-term solutions remain up
in the air.
One of CHRONIC’s highest goals is for Norlite to stop burning
hazardous waste. DEC told Curtis “that it is completely
technically feasible for them to switch to, for example,
natural gas, which would be a much safer substitution of
The desire to have Norlite cease burning hazardous waste
does beg questions about where the waste would go instead.
For Curtis, the issue is linked to forcing “safer substitution
and green chemistry up the waste stream. One of the reasons
that there’s less of an incentive to seek and implement
safer alternatives is that it’s very easy for them to get
rid of [hazardous waste]. . . . It happens every day that
people switch to safer alternatives. So, it’s nice to create
that straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Knight says CHRONIC has no intention of going away “until
Norlite stops burning hazardous waste,” and thinks that
“as long as the mayor knows and Norlite knows that we’re
out here and that we’re not going away then maybe they might
behave a little bit.” When local news covered the bucket
brigade in September, residents noticed the plant was quieter
at night and had only one stack burning for several days.
But then business went back to normal.
CHRONIC is hoping to get more tests done and wants a system
of continual air monitoring to be implemented in the neighborhood.
Residents also are looking forward to using the public-comment
period during Norlite’s upcoming Title V and RCRA permit
review periods to submit their concerns again to DEC.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is
researching the possibility of a public health assessment,
and Sean Ward hopes to sit down with the commissioner of
the Albany County Health Department to do the same. Knight
thinks local officials “should be making the company prove
to the people that they’re not making them sick, not the
people prove to the company. We’re your citizens. You’re
the ones that are supposed to be looking out for us, not
the big company that’s raking in all kinds of millions and
millions of dollars each year.” CHRONIC is holding a neighborhood
meeting on Dec. 10 to bring residents up to speed on its
progress, and to ask people to complete health surveys to
help it collect data.
In the interim, Norlite has offered to let CHRONIC review
the records the company keeps on premises and to take a
tour of the facility, which Cohoes Councilman George Primeau
thinks would help CHRONIC piece together a fuller picture.
“If you really don’t know what’s going on there, you could
really sit there and imagine a lot of things. I don’t think
some of the things they’re imagining [are true], [but] a
lot of the issues have to be explained.”