The BOOKPRESS October 1999

The Big Chill

Walter Hang

Cornell Universityís determination to build a Lake Source Cooling (LSC) Project has figuratively and literally torn Ithaca apart. Citizens, alumni, environmental groups, and sovereign Native American nations oppose the $55 million project to air-condition Cornellís campus with cold water drawn from Cayuga Lake. But Cornell stubbornly pushes onódigging up streets, cutting down century-old trees, burying miles of giant pipes from its campus to the very edge of Cayugaís waters.

One wonders why Cornell clings so tenaciously to LSC as opposition mounts and superior energy alternatives are adopted by other universities and institutions. How much criticism is Cornellís Board of Trustees willing to absorb? How much environmental damage is it willing to inflict?

Cornell currently air-conditions its campus with cold water generated by eight giant chillers that, with one exception, depend on chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants (CFCs) whose production and importation has been banned by the U.S. Clean Air Act as a threat to the earthís protective ozone layer. While Cornell has reportedly stockpiled enough CFCs to last for years, that supply will eventually become depleted and the chillers will have to be retrofitted or replaced.

Cornell proposes to continue to utilize its environmentally threatening, energy-inefficient chillers for an indeterminate period, while supplementing its chilled water supply by tapping Cayuga Lake for up to 46 million gallons of cold water per day.

This plan has three fatal flaws. Cornell would: unnecessarily prolong damage to the ozone layer; eschew far superior energy alternatives that could better meet its air conditioning and power generation needs; and subject Cayuga Lake to an environmental impact with potentially irreversible and disastrous consequences that no scientist can accurately predict. With all due respect, Cornell has sailed into dangerous, uncharted waters and should change course before it is too late.

First and foremost, Cornellís search for non-CFC air conditioning alternatives was insufficient and must be reinvigorated. Many economically and environmentally superior air conditioning and power generating solutions are being rapidly developed and should be researched further. For example:

ē Cornellís CFC chillers could be replaced by units that use non-CFC refrigerants for a tiny fraction of the $55 million price tag of Lake Source Cooling. This would be the fastest, easiest way to reduce Cornellís CFC threat to the ozone layer, leaving Cayuga Lake untouched. Moreover, the cost savings could fund other energy and environmental improvements.

ē Cornell could produce chilled water by utilizing ground-source based cooling systems or tapping cold groundwater supplies under and around the campus. This would avoid subjecting Cayuga Lake to environmental risks by using closed loop, open loop well water or other ground-source based cooling alternatives. Because these systems could be built far closer to Cornell than the middle of Cayuga Lake, inherent energy and construction cost savings could be garnered.

ē Cornellís existing CFC chillers are driven, in part, by electricity supplied by a coal-fired power plant that contributes to air pollution, ash disposal and global warming problems. The environmental threats posed by this facility dwarf the impact of Cornellís CFC chillers. Cornell could easily purchase power or burn clean natural gas instead of coal in its existing cogeneration system. This would produce electricity and steam with far fewer pollution hazards. The electricity could drive non-CFC chillers or ground-source cooling systems. Steam-driven absorption water chillers could replace the CFC units. Even better, state-of-the-art cogeneration alternatives could be utilized, such as the innovative gas-fired cogeneration system recently built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

ē Finally, Cornell should vastly reduce its energy use and environmental impact by immediately adopting comprehensive, campus-wide energy conservation measures. Cornellís energy-wasteful ways are notorious to students and faculty and should be halted irrespective of its air conditioning quandary.

Instead of pursuing these tried and true water-chilling and energy-saving alternatives, Cornell fixated on a LSC Project that was utterly unprecedented in its scope and potential environmental impact. This alternative was promoted as a cost-effective, energy-efficient, endlessly renewable way to replace dangerous CFC chillers. If that sounds too good to be true, it is.

In reality, LSC clearly violates state and federal environmental protection statutes for Cayuga Lakeís shallow southern end because it would exacerbate the lakeís existing water quality violations instead of eliminating them as required by law and common sense.

LSC would draw cold water (41° F) from a depth of 250 feet near the bottom of Cayuga Lake and pipe it more than two miles to a heat exchange facility located near the southern terminus of the lake. The cold lake water, which contains phosphorus, would pass continuously through heat exchangers, absorbing heat from a huge five-mile closed loop that would send chilled refrigerant to the campus and return heated refrigerant to be re-chilled.

After passing through heat exchangers, the temperature of the lake water would be raised as much as 15° F. All of the heated, phosphorus-containing water would be continuously discharged 500 feet off-shore into an area of Cayuga Lake only ten feet deep.

That specific portion of Cayuga Lake has extensive pollution problems, notably non-point source hazards associated with storm water and agricultural run-off, leaking toxic sites, and erosion from streambanks and roadbanks. Consequently, LSC would exacerbate water quality impairments that have persisted in southern Cayuga Lake since the early 1960s, including phosphorus concentrations that produce vast algae and aquatic weed infestations; turbidity that has banned swimming at Stewart Park for decades; and turbidity that threatens fish spawning and drinking water quality.

In 1996, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) included the southern 5,000 acres of Cayuga Lakeóan area that stretches from Stewart Park nearly to Taughannock Parkóin its Priority Waterbody Listing of known or suspected impaired waters.

In April 1998, the DEC listed the same portion of Cayuga Lake as a threatened Class AA(T) water quality limited segment for nutrient and silt pollution pursuant to section 303(d) of the U.S. Clean Water Act. This listing identifies waters where effluent limitations required by federal law are insufficiently stringent to achieve applicable water quality standards.

To date, no comprehensive environmental assessment, management plan or pollution control program has been proposed or carried out to solve these water quality problems.

Pursuant to section 122.4 of the U. S. Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C.§1313(d), no permit may be granted: "To a new source or a new discharger, if the discharge from its construction or operation will cause or contribute to the violation of water quality standards."

LSCís clear violation of this key provision for both phosphorus and turbidity was first documented in a legal memorandum submitted last December to DEC Commissioner John Cahill by Peter Lehner, a prominent water quality lawyer with the respected Natural Resources Defense Council. After providing invaluable assistance to Ithacans opposing LSC, Mr. Lehner left NRDC and currently serves as the head of the Environmental Protection Bureau for New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer.

The EPA-approved narrative water quality standard for phosphorus provides that it shall be limited to "[n]one in amounts that will result in algae, weeds and slimes that will impair the waters for their best usages." 6 N.Y.C.R.R. §703.2.

Cayuga Lake clearly violates that standard because its waters are often so inundated with giant mats of floating weeds and algae that swimming and boating are all but impossible. This summer, islands of weeds and algae the size of football fields clogged the southern lake.

LSCís discharge would undoubtedly contribute to the violation of that standard because: a) phosphorus is the limiting growth factor for algae and aquatic weeds in Cayuga Lake, especially the soluble reactive form of phosphorus; b) Cayuga Lake at a depth of 250 feet reportedly contains between two and four times more soluble reactive phosphorus than the surface water near the discharge; and c) any discharge of soluble reactive phosphorus would be rapidly uptaken by aquatic plants upon discharge.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation granted LSCís discharge permit by simply failing to enforce the narrative standard for phosphorus. Instead, the agency determined that LSCís discharge would not be expected to exceed the "guidance value" for total phosphorus near the middle of Cayuga Lake. The phosphorus guidance value has no enforcement authority under state or federal law and utterly fails to assess the environmental impact of soluble reactive phosphorus in the highly impaired area of the discharge.

This stunning regulatory failure was coupled with a parallel failure to enforce the water quality standard for turbidity. That narrative standard provides that suspended and settleable solids, such as silt, shall be limited to "[n]one...that will cause deposition or impair the waters for their best usages." 6 NYCRR §703.2.

Public bathing at Stewart Park along the southern shore of Cayuga Lake has been banned for decades due to high turbidity levels. Construction of LSCís intake structure along more than a mile of the shallow bottom of the lake would exacerbate existing water quality violations associated with silt. Section 122.4(i) specifically prohibits permits when water quality violations are caused by the construction of new sources or discharges.

Even though construction of LSC is moving ahead, the project faces its greatest challenge as community opposition intensifies. For example, the Cayuga Nation and representatives of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (often referred to as Iroquois) recently opposed Cornellís efforts to obtain a land easement required to build the LSCís intake and discharge pipes on the bottom of Cayuga Lake. This easement is absolutely essential for LSC and may prove to be the projectís undoing.

The Cayuga Nation is engaged in a 20-year-old lawsuit to obtain aboriginal lands that they contend were illegally taken away by the State of New York. Cayuga Lake is partially encompassed by those aboriginal lands. A judge has already determined that the lands were illegally taken, but no settlement has yet been reached. As those issues are being decided, the Cayuga Nation and representatives of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force are meeting with representatives of Cornell as well as state and federal environmental authorities regarding their concerns about LSC.

Concurrently, the failure of government pollution control programs to solve Cayuga Lakeís pollution problems has catalyzed citizen action that could thwart LSC. Toxics Targeting, Inc., a local environmental research firm, undertook a preliminary watershed characterization of southern Cayuga Lake last spring. That investigation surveyed known or potential pollution problems through visual inspection in order to spur the public as well as government agencies to clean up the lake. Nearly 800 known or potential pollution sources were identified, including landfills, garbage dumps, miles of eroded streambanks, unregulated wastewater discharges and toxic dumps. Individual citizens and groups are now taking direct action to clean up problems on a site-by-site basis. To view detailed reports for each of the 28 stream segments that were surveyed, please visit

Citizens should continue to support rescinding or fundamentally altering LSCís discharge permit to make it comply with the 122.4(i) moratorium provision of the Clean Water Act. If that law is not strictly enforced, a policy precedent would be set by both state and federal environmental authorities that would hinder cleanup efforts across New York.

By monitoring the progress made by government authorities to clean up identified hazards, citizens can gauge the effectiveness of New Yorkís regulatory programs for themselves. That is a critical first step toward developing a model of active, sustained public participation that could reverse the continued degradation of Cayuga Lake.

Walter Hang is a resident of Ithaca and an avid 470 sailor.

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