New York made 11M bottles of hand sanitizer. Now it has 700,000 gallons it can’t get rid of.
ORISKANY, N.Y. — In the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced New York would use prison labor to address a hand sanitizer shortage and make bottles that were superior to “products now on the market.”
New York made so much of the “NYS Clean” hand sanitizer — a whopping 11 million bottles, to be exact — that it still doesn’t know how to get rid of it.
On a former airport runaway in Central New York sit 706,172 gallons of NYS Clean, in an array of bottle sizes, on 4,000 pallets that stretch the length of three football fields — out in the open, covered in tarps and likely never to be used, much of it already expired. It will likely cost New York million of dollars to dispose of it, possibly shipped out of state in hundreds of trucks to be incinerated, according to environmental experts and officials familiar with the process.
“There is a way to properly dispose of it,” said Diana Aga, the director of the RENEW Institute at the University of Buffalo, which studies environmental issues. “The issue here is the volume.”
The surplus hand sanitizer, which Cuomo ordered prisoners at three state facilities to make from March 2020 to October 2020, is just the latest example of wasted resources rushed into production in the early days of the pandemic.
State governments across the nation scurried to buy and procure supplies and equipment as Covid-19 spread through the country — particularly New York, which was the first epicenter of the virus and saw as many as 800 deaths a day.
Like the hand sanitizer, many of the products were never needed and sit dormant at facilities across the state. Nearby the pallets of hand sanitizer at a state emergency training facility near Utica are 89 new HVAC systems that were supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for pop-up Covid care facilities in 2020 that were never used.
New York said it plans to sell the units, costing millions of dollars, at an auction this summer — surely for pennies on the dollar — and give the proceeds to FEMA.
Critics said states should undertake detailed accounting of what was purchased during the early days of the pandemic, particularly in New York, where Cuomo gained attention for his nationally broadcast Covid news briefings and regular announcements that garnered daily headlines.
“It’s part of the larger story in looking back on the decisions that the administration has made to get a full account of those mistakes and understand how we should not repeat them,” said state Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens), who battled Cuomo over the handling of Covid deaths at nursing homes. “We all know that he was infatuated with gimmicks and headlines without actually following through on the details and delivering the results he would lead with at the press conferences.”
The NYS Clean operation, run by Corcraft, the state’s prison-run business operation, was hailed by Cuomo as a way to make free hand sanitizer that could be used by local governments and health care facilities amid an immediate shortage and price spikes. He joked at a March 9, 2020, news conference that the hand sanitizer smelled like a “floral bouquet” with a hint of lilac and hydrangea and then had an aide at the conference table smell his fingers to confirm the scent.
The gallon bottles — which, along with 2-ounce and 8-ounce versions, have a potent 75 percent isopropyl alcohol-based formula that’s higher than most store-bought sanitizers — became ubiquitous around the state. The bottles were found in gas stations, public spaces and government buildings, often with warnings to pump slow: the sanitizer shot out fast and onto people’s clothes and shoes.
“At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, NYS Clean hand sanitizer was mass produced by the state and made widely available to New Yorkers at a critical time when it was in short supply,” the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said in a statement to POLITICO.
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo, defended the production of the abundance of hand sanitizer.
“We make no apologies for single-handedly solving a hand sanitizer shortage crisis during a once in a century pandemic,” he said. “While others were content to do nothing and let panic set in, Governor Cuomo stepped up and made sure that anyone who needed hand sanitizer got it, putting together an infrastructure that distributed 7.5 million units to New Yorkers free of charge to them.”
Azzopardi put the blame for the unused stockpile on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration, saying Cuomo’s office continued to distribute it until he left office.
“If the current one failed to do the same, I don’t know what to tell you. If the Ron Kims of the world — who did nothing during the pandemic — want to continue to take cheap shots to advance their personal politics, then what else is new?” Azzopardi said.
Cuomo resigned in scandal last August.
Initially, the hand sanitizer batches were made and bottled at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in the Adirondacks. Then production expanded to two other prisons: Albion in Western New York and Shawangunk in the Hudson Valley.
Production continued until October 2020 — well after the immediate hand sanitizer shortage was abated.
Then the problem arose: What to do with backlog of hand sanitizer?
First, it was stored indoors at the New York State Fairgrounds near Syracuse. But then fire officials realized the danger of the stockpile: It was highly flammable and couldn’t be kept indoors.
“It is a hazardous waste, but it is flammable,” Aga said. “Your biggest enemy here is fire.”
The hand sanitizer, state officials confirm, was shipped in early 2021 by hundreds of truckloads to the Oriskany site. It has sat outside and largely out of sight, located behind the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office and next to the county office building, a recent visit by POLITICO to the stockpile found.
It was no easy task to make the move: A variety of state agencies, including members of the New York National Guard, assisted in the relocation in the middle of the upstate New York winter — unloading the pallets and covering them in blue tarps.
“Due to the quantity of this flammable material, it is most safely stored outdoors and the location offers the necessary space to do so,” the state Homeland Security division said in response to questions from POLITICO.
The state didn’t offer any specifics on how much it will ultimately cost to incinerate the hand sanitzer, which often has a two-year shelf life before it starts to lose its potency.
And it can still be ordered. There’s a request form online to get some sent.
“While NYS Clean is still available for free to local governments, upon request, the State is working through the process of safely disposing of the material,” the state agency said.