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Chronic Exposure

Cohoes and Colonie residents took a look at big industry in their backyard, and what they found is not pretty

By Ashley Hahn
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.”

Knight’s 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.

“My 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 inevitably escape.

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.

Too close for comfort: Norlite's twin stacks hover above Saratoga Sites.

Knight’s 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 incinerator.”

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 past activities.

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 agreement.

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 sick.”

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 it.”

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 home.”

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.

“They 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 boundaries.

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 Kokocki.

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.

On duty: Tania Knight demonstrates bucket brigade sampling.

“As you would surmise, both parties are coming from two different angles, and they couldn’t be more widely divergent,” says McDonald.

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 begin with.”

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 fuel.”

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.”

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