Cornell should not be allowed to increase the usage of its cooling plant on Cayuga Lake, Town of Ithaca board members said at a meeting Tuesday, arguing that the facility has already significantly damaged the lake.
The University, however, disputes that the plant has hurt the lake and denies town officials’ claim that a recent proposal would amplify the environmental effects of its cooling plant.
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. While the University has said that the process saves the amount of energy it uses to cool buildings annually by 86 percent, town officials say the phosphorus encourages the growth of weeds, harms aquatic life and reduces the clarity of water.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed modifying Cornell’s permit for the cooling plant in a move that board members say would allow Cornell to increase the amount of phosphorus it discharges into Cayuga Lake through the lake source cooling process.
Citing these effects, town officials passed a resolution Tuesday to oppose Cornell’s modified permit.
“The Ithaca area … [spends] millions and millions of dollars to clean up our phosphorus,” Town Supervisor Herb Engman said. “So the DEC now proposes to allow Cornell to continue to add more phosphorus at the same time [that] the rest of us in the municipalities have had to spend millions of dollars cleaning up our contribution.”
Defending its use of the plant, the University denied that the DEC’s modification of its permit would increase the amount of phosphorus discharged into the lake. In a press release, the University said that the proposed permit would restrict — not increase — the amount of phosphorus discharged by lake source cooling, as the cooling facility does not currently operate under a limit.
The University also said that scaling back lake source cooling activities in accordance with the proposed DEC permit “may have the unintended consequence of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, as Cornell will be required to use electrically-driven chillers to replace the diminished cooling capacity on peak days.”
Town residents and board members also decried the University’s role in a study on the environmental effects of lake source cooling. The study will be used by the DEC to determine how to regulate the plant.
The board members said that the University’s plan to collect data for the study represents a conflict of interest and would undermine the study’s accuracy.
But Claudia Wheatley, the University’s director of press relations, denied this claim.
“Our scientists, who are regarded as some of the best in their respective fields, are going to conduct a survey of the entire lake –– there has never been a more comprehensive study of this very large, very deep body of water,” Wheatley said in an email Tuesday.
Both parties also criticized the haste of the proceedings. A University representative at the meeting said that the board drew up and voted on its resolution without giving Cornell a fair chance to address board members.
“I feel very uncomfortable as a Town of Ithaca resident that a resolution of this import is being crammed in, piecemeal,” said Gary Stewart, director of community relations for the University.
Engman responded that the speed of the meeting was in part the result of the speed with which he said the University has urged the DEC to approve its lake source cooling permit.
“After a decade of talking about changes to the permit, all of a sudden it came out in the paper that there was going to be this permitting system set up,” Engman said. “It would have been nice if Cornell had contacted us ... Cornell University and the DEC knows full well where the Town of Ithaca has stood on this for the last 10 years … We said consistently that Cornell was adding to the pollution of phosphorus in Cayuga Lake. That has never changed in the last 10 years.”