March 28, 2013

Cornell University Cooling Plant to Continue Operating

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Despite facing strong opposition from the Town of Ithaca, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation issued Cornell a permit Wednesday that will allow it to continue operating its Lake Source Cooling facility on Cayuga Lake.

Lake source cooling is a process that draws cold water from the bottom of a lake to cool buildings, depositing phosphorus in the water that promotes algae growth. The University has said that the process saves the amount of energy it uses to cool buildings annually by 86 percent, but town officials say the phosphorus encourages the growth of weeds, harms aquatic life and reduces the clarity of water, The Sun previously reported.

Ithaca Town Supervisor Herb Engman said he was disappointed with the DEC’s decision to re-issue the permit to Cornell.

“The new permit has nothing new on it. I can’t see any changes from what it was before … so it was a waste of time for [Town of Ithaca] to approach DEC about the issue,” Engman said.

Engman said that he is concerned that the DEC is “doing the same thing that was happening before: turning over the responsibility to Cornell for coming up with the maximum load for the amount of phosphorus that goes in the lake.”

Moreover, Engman said, the new permit allows Cornell to increase pollution in the Cayuga Lake.

“[DEC] has given the green light to Cornell not only [to] continue polluting the lake, but [also] to increase it,” he said.

The University, however, has argued that the permit would in fact decrease, not increase, the amount of phosphorus discharged by lake source cooling.

Additionally, Cornell has said that using a renewable resource — the lake’s water — to cool facilities has allowed it to reduce its fossil fuel usage. Without the facility, the peak demand for electrical service would be 18 MW higher than the actual peak of about 36 MW during the summer — increasing demand for electricity by 50-percent.

Although the source for the cooling facility, water, is renewable, the University has repeatedly failed to address the issue of lake pollution, according to Engman.

“[The cooling facility] is definitely a more carbon-saving option,” he said. “But what Cornell has never admitted, which their own study shows, is that they are polluting the lake.”

Still, as part of the permit’s conditions, the University will fund a $2.1-million collaborative study to identify sources of phosphorus in the lake, as well as the effects of phosphorus on the Cayuga Lake ecosystem.

The study will develop a mathematical model that will enable the DEC to allocate the amount of phosphorus that can be added to the lake without causing environmental harm, according to the University’s website.

Engman, however, said he opposes the University being involved in the study — an act he called an “immense conflict of interest” that points at the “clear avoidance of state responsibility” by the DEC.

Although the DEC agreed the case should have been reviewed by an independent third party, Cornell did not subsequently leave the case for independent review, according to Engman.

“If you have one of the contributors of phosphorous to the lake doing the study, it is a huge conflict of interest,” he said. “[DEC] should have asked Cornell to hand over the money and then done the study themselves. But by allowing the permittee to do the study is not acceptable.”

Cornell has defended its role in the study by saying top scientists will be working on the study to create a comprehensive review of Cayuga Lake, The Sun previously reported.

Original Author: Manu Rathore