A hazardous waste handler can no longer burn certain firefighter foams in New York, thanks to a new state law prohibiting the practice in some cities.
Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that prevents incineration of firefighting foams that contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemicals known collectively as PFAS. While the new law applies to cities designated as environmental justice areas and with 16,000 to 17,000 residents, its actual target is Cohoes, New York. Cohoes is home to the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator, the only facility in the state – and among just a few nationwide – known to have processed PFAS-containing firefighting foams.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation ordered Norlite to cease disposal of the material in 2019, and the city of Cohoes enacted a one-year moratorium on PFAS incineration last April. But a permanent ban was sought by environmentalists, local officials, and residents after it was revealed as incinerated more than 2 million pounds of foam through contracts with the Pentagon that have since been canceled. The company had also incinerated foam shipped from firehouses across the East Coast.
“This establishes a national precedent that other states should follow,” Judith Enck, former Region 2 administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.
Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) made with PFAS were routinely used at military bases and civilian airports to extinguish fires driven by jet fuel and other flammable liquids. Although PFAS are resistant to heat, grease, stains, and water, studies conducted since the late 1960s have linked exposure to these human-made chemicals to toxic effects that can impact the liver, testicles, and other organs. PFAS are also known as the “forever chemicals” because they never break down once they’ve accumulated in the human body or environment
The EPA currently classifies two specific PFAS used in AFFF — PFOA and PFOS — as “emerging contaminants,” and has established a “Lifetime Health Advisory” setting a recommended lifetime limit for exposure from drinking water. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also issued a warning regarding increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer related to the use of firefighting foam at U.S. military installations.
Last December, the U.S. Congress mandated that PFAS-containing firefighting foams be phased out by 2024. The prior year, legislators directed the Federal Aviation Administration to modify its regulations to allow municipal airports to use PFAS-free alternatives.
Hundreds of plaintiffs who developed cancer following exposure to AFFF are now pursuing firefighting foam lawsuits in federal courts around the United States. In December 2018, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated these clams before a single federal judge in the District of South Carolina, allowing the cases to undergo coordinated discovery and other pretrial proceedings. As of December 15, 2020, the litigation had grown to include 910 filings.
Plaintiffs generally allege that firefighter foams made with PFOA and PFOS contaminated groundwater near various military bases, airports, and other industrial sites where AFFF was used. They seek compensation for personal injury, a need for medical monitoring, property damage, and other economic losses.