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Lake Source Cooling Isn’t the Whole Problem


Walter Hang, activist-scientist of Toxics Targeting, would like to see Cornell’s Lake Source Cooling plant move its discharge pipe farther North. Hang and town of Ithaca residents claim that LSC increases phosphorus in the southern end of Cayuga Lake, thus feeding algae and weeds, and are asking the DEC to keep Cornell out of a study on water quality in the lake, saying Cornell-affiliated scientists would be biased.

In a recent meeting of the Lansing village board, Lansing mayor Don Hartill, himself a Cornell professor, suppressed a grin at the idea of his colleagues dancing to Cornell’s tune. “They’re a pretty independent bunch,” said Hartill. “That’s the idea behind tenure.”

The town of Ithaca has extended the public comment period on the study from Nov. 19 to Dec. 19 in response to the public’s concerns about LSC.

Forgotten in the fracas is the fact that LSC was launched by the university to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and eliminate the use of CFCs for the campus’ cooling systems. According to the university, “LSC saves an average of 25,000,00 KW per year versus previous cooling methods, enough to continuously supply 2500 homes in Tompkins County.” Overall, the university’s intention was to reduce pollution, so to accuse it of intending to pollute the lake- and fudge the numbers to cover up doing so- demonizes Cornell to no real purpose.

At the crux of the issue is whether increased phosphorus levels at monitoring point 7, at the south end of the lake near Stewart Park, are caused by the LSC discharge. The answer is, unscientifically, yes and no. What LSC does is take cooler water from the deep levels of the lake, send it through the university’s heating and cooling system, then discharge the now-warmer water into the shallower end of the lake. Phosphorus is neither created nor added to the water by this process. However, the phosphorus found in the deeper, cooler parts of the lake is more nutritionally accessible to algae, so opponents of LSC argue that this phosphorus is contributing to algal and weed growth.

Should the DEC agree with Hang, it would designate a Total Maximum Daily Load of phosphorus that can be discharged into the lake, leading to further regulation and monitoring of point sources (like the LSC discharge pipe) and a limit on the phosphorus load coming from each source into the lake.

Ultimately, Hang would like to see public swimming in Stewart Park once more. This is a worthy goal, but the problem with targeting LSC for the lake’s pollution is that LSC isn’t the lake’s biggest problem. It’s not even near it.

Non-point source pollution, the run-off from lawns and parking lots into Fall Creek and other tributaries to the lake, is not only a bigger contributor of phosphorus than LSC, but much more difficult to control. According to the NYS DEC, “dishwasher detergents may contain up to 9% phosphorus and can account for 9% to 34% of total phosphorus in municipal wastewater. Lawn fertilizer contains up to 3% phosphorus and can account for up to 50% of the soluble phosphorus in stormwater runoff from lawn areas.”

New York has responded by banning phosphorus lawn fertilizer this year, stopping the sale of phosphorus-containing dish soap, and in 2013 will disallow phosphorus-containing dish detergent in commercial facilities, as well. When phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizer was banned in Michigan, lake water quality improved; as the effects of the new DEC regulations are felt, Cayuga Lake should see an improvement as well. In the meantime, throw out that old box of Miracle-Gro that’s been sitting in your garage since the 80s. Responsibility for pollution in the lake belongs to everyone in the community, not just Cornell.