January 25, 2002

Controversial Cooling Plan

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Cornell University’s controversy-plagued Lake Source Cooling (LSC) project received the Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention, on Jan. 14.

Commissioner Erin Crotty presented the award in a ceremony at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) headquarters in Albany.

Praise for Prevention

The award, first given in 1994, honors, “those New York businesses and organizations that demonstrate outstanding achievement in pollution prevention,” according to the DEC website. “The reduction in air pollution is dramatic,” said Peter Constantakes, Public Information Officer of the DEC, of their choice of Cornell for the award. “It is a very innovative project.”

LSC was cited for saving 87 percent of the power that would have been used by conventional chillers to cool the University. The resultant savings is 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to power 2500 Tompkins County homes.

“It’s a great honor for the University,” said William Joyce, chief engineer of the LSC project, who attended the ceremony. Joyce was involved in all phases of the planning, construction and initiation of the system. LSC has also won the International District Energy Association System of the Year Award and the New York State Society of Professional Engineers Engineering Achievement of the Year Award, both given in 2001.

Nature’s Help

Lake Source Cooling employs a renewable resource — cold water from the bottom of the lake, some two miles from shore and 250 feet down — and passes it in a closed loop next to warm water coming from campus. Heat is exchanged as it naturally flows from hot to cold and the cooler campus water heads back up the hill to cool Cornell and the Ithaca School District Administration Building. The warmer lake water is returned to the shallow end of the lake near Stewart Park. The system has been operational since July 2000.

“The system is running very well. It’s exceeding our expectations for ease of operation and maintenance and saving more energy than we’d hoped,” Joyce said.

Cooling drawn from the lake is power not drawn from coal, which is used to produce electricity for Ithaca. Cornell estimates that 56 million pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, 645 thousand pounds of sulfur dioxides and 55 thousand pounds of nitrogen oxides, air pollutants, and 19 million pounds of coal per year are not emitted or consumed as a result.

However, Lake Source Cooling has its critics.

“Lake Source Cooling is a completely illegal wastewater discharge, and it should never have been allowed,” said Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, Inc., a company which maps contaminated sites in New York State.

His allegations center on the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments which he claims Lake Source Cooling violates because the water it returns to the lake does not meet water quality standards. Hang charges that the water Cornell intakes and returns to the lake churns up sediment and brings phosphorous to surface of the lake, which spawns smelly and ecologically damaging algal blooms.

“Water coming back is bad in that it has soluble reactive phosphorous, and that causes algae to grow. The lake already has too much algae,” Hang said.

As proof, he has photographs of the lake that he claims show increased algal growth in the lake as the result of LSC.

Joyce disagrees with this allegation.

“Water that’s returned to the lake is generally higher in clarity, lower in temperature, and much lower in total overall phosphorous than the water it’s going into. The data clearly show this is very high quality water,” he said. “The only changes we’ve seen is what would be expected based on seasonal or year-to-year variability.”

For evidence, Joyce points to the data collected by the Upstate Freshwater Institute (UFI), a non-profit research organization charged with monitoring the lake and reporting their findings monthly to the DEC. Their board of directors is made up of faculty from Syracuse University. “They publish literally hundreds of papers as a research organization [and are] really New York state lake experts,” Joyce said.

Their data and a summary of it are available on the LSC website. The summary states that total phosphorous concentrations of returned lake water were 25 percent less than the water it is returned to, and 50 percent of a value that models predicted would “have no discernible impact.” It adds “No conspicuous changes in water quality were observed on the shelf following start-up of the LSC facility.”

Chlorophyll A, a measure of algal growth, was also measured. Said Joyce, “UFI’s data for the last three years show that the algae concentration in the southern basin is statistically the same as out in mid-lake, even though there’s a lot more phosphorous in that water in the southern end, which comes from streams and sewage treatment plants.”

The report is based on data from 1998-2000, encompassing a period that includes time before LSC was operational.

Prof. Nelson Hairston, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, agrees. In addition to studying lakes as part of his research, he chaired the faculty technical advisory committee for the project during its planning phase.

“If we’d been able to say there was a risk to the lake either aesthetically or ecologically, we would have said so. There was just no evidence that it was going to have a detrimental effect on the lake, and there is no evidence now,” he said.

Concerns also centered around possible heavy metal contamination — the result of prior industrial activity — at the point on the lake where the heat exchange facility was built.

“There is lead where they built the intake and discharge structures. We didn’t know about Ithaca Falls at the time. It’s entirely possible lead migrated [to the facility from there]. [Cornell] knew the site was contaminated when they built there,” Hang said.

Though Joyce does not deny the presence of contaminants “which were characterized in the Environmental Impact Statement”, he stated that Cornell removed the soil it dredged from the lake during construction and put it on land at its own expense, and in excess of what the EPA and DEC required. “We also tried to limit runoff during construction and had a double-impermeable barrier placed in the lake. That was very effective [in containing runoff],” he said.

He further commented that in 1999, when much of the construction was going on, it was a dry year and there was hardly any runoff to the lake.

Hang also claimed that Cornell should extend the discharge pipe to a deeper area of the lake, out of the photic zone where algae can grow.

“There were absolutely no scientists who said that was a worthwhile two million dollar expense. It was very clearly written into the permit, however, that if it was found that the lake changed in a way that was negative and was caused by LSC, we’d have to change the operation or design of the plant up to and including moving the outflow. In the future, if data showed [a need], it would be moved,” Joyce said.

Hairston added, “If you put warm water in at a lower depth, it would rise anyway.”

Joyce admits, “There is no no-impact solution for having cooling for the University, [but] this is clearly the lowest impact long-term solution.”

The critics remain unconvinced, despite the award.

This week in the Ithaca Journal, Rich DePaolo of the Cayuga Lake Defense Fund wrote a rebuttal to Cornell’s receipt of the award. Hang also wrote a lett
er to Commissioner Crotty before the presentation of the award protesting its presentation to LSC.

“We think that the award is a PR gimmick and we think that it’s entirely inappropriate to honor an illegal wastewater discharge that is making pollution problems worse in Cayuga Lake,” Hang said.

Some critics may have been converted, though. “I think that it’s great the DEC gave [the award to Cornell] because they were real skeptics [initially] and weren’t convinced Cornell should be doing this at the time,” Hairston said.

Cornell’s LSC project is not the first large-scale employment of this technology. The city of Stockholm, Sweden cools itself using the same method.

Two similar projects are also being planned on Lake Ontario, one for the city of Toronto, and the other for a Xerox Plant in Monroe County, NY.

Archived article by Jennifer Frazer