Read the full article by Sylvia Carignan & Keshia Clukey (Bloomberg Law)
“When Joe Ritchie was a kid growing up near an upstate New York incinerator, it wasn’t unusual to find black soot on windowsills around the house. But in the last few years, there’s been a new odor in the neighborhood, that smells as if someone has been dumping household chemicals in a tub and lighting them on fire.
In February, Ritchie, found out the incinerator had been burning firefighting foam containing PFAS. About 2.5 million pounds of waste contaminated with the chemicals were shipped to the incinerator from more than two dozen states.
‘When I saw that, I thought, oh my God. It’s like one of our worst fears come true,’ he said.
The debate over how to dispose of persistent, ubiquitous PFAS chemicals has been heating up, but relatively little research has been done so far. The Environmental Protection Agency and others are now tackling the issue, but their conclusions can’t come soon enough for communities like Ritchie’s, where families may have already been exposed to the chemicals.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been dubbed “forever chemicals,” owing to their persistence in the environment and presence in our blood. PFAS have been used for decades to manufacture nonstick and stain-resistant coatings in cookware, clothing, fast-food wrappers, carpets, firefighting foam,and other consumer and industrial products.
Ritchie and about 160 residents live in theSaratoga Sites public housing complex in Cohoes, N.Y., next to an incinerator owned by Norlite LLC, an affiliate of Tradebe Environmental Services LLC. Though the incinerator has operated for years, it only recently accepted waste contaminated by chemicals that have been popping up in drinking water supplies across the country.
Multiple states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, are collecting tens of thousands of gallons of firefighting foam that contains PFAS from airports and fire departments, often opting to destroy the foam through incineration. The Norlite incinerator accepted that type of waste for two years, through the end of 2019.
But little research has been done on the effectiveness of PFAS incineration, said David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College in Vermont, whose preliminary sampling in March found the chemicals in soil near the Norlite incinerator.
‘One of the most striking things to us about this exploratory research was that nobody had asked the question before,’ he said. ‘Nobody had asked if it was effectively breaking stuff down.’
Emerging data shows incineration may not be completely destroying the chemicals, but merely moving them from one place to another, spurring a new U.S. EPA research team and New York state’s effort to gauge and limit the public’s exposure.
Responsibility for destroying the ‘forever’ chemicals is both a public health and legal burden, researchers and attorneys said. The entities collecting and getting rid of the chemicals—including the Department of Defense, states, and water utilities—could face environmental liabilities down the road if their chosen destruction method isn’t completely effective.
An ‘Unproven’ Method
PFAS may cause adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the EPA.
“We know these chemicals are toxic, they’re stockpiled across the country,” Bond said. “We’re turning to incineration that’s unproven.”
Bond’s soil and water testing near the Norlite facility indicated PFAS chemicals had drifted downwind, potentially affecting residents at Ritchie’s public housing complex. Bond acknowledged that with his testing limited by coronavirus pandemic and grant restrictions, he couldn’t definitively link the incinerator to the PFAS in the samples.
In December 2019, in response to the state’s request, Norlite agreed to stop incinerating firefighting foam, also known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. The Department of Defense has ended its incineration contract with Tradebe, according to the state and the company.
“Norlite has not received any AFFF material since December 2019, nor does Norlite have any AFFF material in storage and currently, we do not have shipments of AFFF scheduled into Norlite,” said Prince Knight, environmental and regulatory compliance manager for Tradebe. Knight declined to comment further.
The state has also taken issue with Bond’s research. His data didn’t support his conclusions, said Sean Mahar, chief of staff of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Bond’s data ‘showed no pattern of contamination, none of the chemical fingerprints typically found with PFAS-related [firefighting foam] contamination, no widespread evidence of contamination, questionable sampling protocols, and trace levels of PFAS typical of urban locations in New York State and beyond,’ Mahar said.
The DEC is working with the state health department to do its own sampling, Mahar said…”