Read the full article by Elizabeth Gribkoff (VTDigger)

“Bennington College professors say that the incineration of toxic firefighting foam at a plant near Albany, New York, appears to have contaminated nearby communities with PFAS.

The federal Department of Defense and 25 states, including Vermont, shipped old foam to the Norlite Incinerator in an effort to get the hazardous material off the shelves of military bases and local fire departments. 

But the traces of PFAS chemicals found in soil and water samples downwind of the plant – about a 45-minute drive from Bennington – indicate that incineration did not fully break down toxins in the foam, said David Bond, associate director of the college’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action. 

Exposure over time to certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, immune system damages, developmental problems in children and low birth weight. Many unknowns remain about the health effects of the thousands of fluorinated chemicals used in everything from rain jackets to non-stick pans. 

‘Norlite appears to be raking in millions to rid the world of these toxic compounds, only to then emit them into poor and working class neighborhoods in the Capital District, Bond said at a press conference last week about the “preliminary research.”

Norlite uses two recycled fuel-fired kilns to turn shale into a ceramic aggregate used in construction and horticulture. The company says using waste fuels reduces its dependence on fossil fuels, but local activists have raised concerns for years about potential air quality impacts from burning hazardous waste in densely populated Albany County. 

New York and Vermont environmental officials say initial reviews of the lab results appear to show PFAS levels in line with those found in urban areas. A spokesperson for the company said that while Norlite “voluntarily” stopped incinerating the foam last December, the company had complied with its state and federal permits. 

Bill Keeler, the mayor of Cohoes, expressed frustration with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for not notifying the public about the incineration. He has called on state and federal regulators to conduct more environmental testing around the site.  

A coalition of environmental and community justice groups sued the Department of Defense earlier this year over Norlight’s incineration practices, claiming that the military should have conducted more environmental review before entering into contracts to incinerate millions of gallons of foam. 

PFAS gained notoriety in Vermont in 2016 after the state discovered that emissions from two former ChemFab Corp. plants had contaminated hundreds of wells in Bennington with one particularly toxic member of that group, PFOA. Bennington College professors and students have worked on community-focused PFAS research since then. 

Bond and some Bennington College students took soil and water samples in March at four different sites around Norlite. EuroFins, a commercial lab, analyzed the samples for a wide range of PFAS compounds. 

While Bond is not aware of previous studies of potential air and water contamination linked to AFFF incineration, the type and relative amounts of PFAS compounds found in the samples near the plant mirror reports of groundwater contamination from the foam

Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator and visiting professor at Bennington College, said the state of New York should have required Norlite to conduct a test burn before allowing the facility to incinerate the fire suppressing foam…”