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Aid to Environment, Or Threat to Lake?; Cornell Pursues Pumping Plan, But Critics Fear Fouled Water


It seems an environmentalist's dream: a system that can cool 10 million square feet of Cornell University dormitories, laboratories and computer rooms simply by pumping frigid water from the depths of a nearby lake. No more chlorofluorocarbons, the refrigerants that can destroy protective ozone in the atmosphere. An electric bill 80 percent smaller than for conventional air conditioners. To top it off, nothing goes back into the lake, except water that came from the lake in the first place.

But an energetic group of local opponents insists that Cornell's $55 million plan to replace its aging air conditioners is actually an environmental nightmare. They say it could foster choking blooms of algae and bacteria at the south end of Cayuga Lake, one of the fjordlike Finger Lakes created where glaciers scratched across New York during the last Ice Age.

Pointing to five years of studies, thousands of pages of data, and more than a dozen permits from local and state agencies, Cornell scientists and engineers say the system could actually improve conditions in the lake. Yet another benefit, they say, is that the smaller electric bill would not just save the school money; it would reduce Cornell's contribution to global warming by reducing the need to burn coal to generate electricity.

For the most part, government officials have agreed, and construction is expected to get into high gear in April. But a small, determined coalition of critics from Ithaca and surrounding Tompkins County says the school's plan should never have been approved. They recently garnered support from as far afield as the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental organization, and Ralph Nader.

They say New York State environmental officials granted permits for the project in violation of a provision of the Federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits new releases of anything into a lake or river that is included on a list of ''impaired'' water bodies. Even though the project would return to the lake only the water that it removed, that would be considered a new release under state law.

The south tip of Cayuga Lake was added to a list of impaired water bodies last year. Officials with Cornell and the state contend, however, that the listing is in a special category not covered by the Federal ban on discharges.

At the last minute, even as several dozen train cars loaded with miles of pipe sit along the lake shore, a burst of E-mails and letters persuaded the United States Environmental Protection Agency to begin a review of the project and the permits granted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The review, which could result in the permits being revoked, is expected to be finished in early April, said Mary Mears, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A. She said it was ''fairly unusual'' for the agency to conduct such a review, because states are given the authority to track water quality.

There is no panic yet at Cornell. Engineers and administrators say that they attended to every detail through five years of planning, research, and scrutiny. They have gained endorsements from the local Sierra Club chapter, the county and town governments, even from a biology professor at Ithaca College down the hill -- not a usual source of support for Cornell.

But some supporters of the plan say they are beginning to wonder whether any big project, good or bad, is possible anymore.

''This is a major societal problem,'' said Dr. John Confer, the biology professor at Ithaca College, who teaches ornithology now but is also an expert in the dynamics of lakes. He said he could find no environmental hazard from the project. ''We have gotten to the point where we distrust scientists,'' Dr. Confer said. ''A scientist says X and anybody says Y and you're at chaos.''

On the other side of the issue, Walter Hang, who runs an Ithaca business that maps toxic sites around New York State, has lent his company's expertise to the opponents of the Cornell project. His concern, he said, is that allowing it to proceed would weaken the Clean Water Act.

The city of Ithaca and a spreading zone of suburban and rural development sit at the south end of the 38-mile-long lake. There, the water often turns soupy in the summers, even though the rest of the lake is clean. Two sewage plants there together release about 12 million gallons a day of treated water.

At the same time, several communities, including the surrounding town of Ithaca, draw drinking water from the lake. Some residents fear that the Cornell project, even if it adds just a little to the problems, could threaten the water supply.

''If you believe the law, this lake is supposed to get studied, get a management plan, and there are supposed to be no new discharges,'' Mr. Hang said. ''But that's not happening. So citizens here have had to become legal experts, scientists, stream surveyors, all to force state and Federal authorities to do what they should have done on their own.''

An employee of his company, Toxics Targeting, has begun trudging along stream banks around the lake, mapping sources of pollution using a satellite positioning system. This is a procedure states are supposed to undertake around every water body that is formally deemed impaired by pollution, Mr. Hang said.

The Cornell staff engineers who conceived the cooling plan say their goal all along was to reduce the school's impact on the environment, not create new problems.

The school's trustees had voted that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC's, the most common refrigerant chemical, were to be eliminated from the campus by 2005. The chemicals have been linked to a deterioration of the ozone layer high in the atmosphere that shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

There was also a push for energy efficiency, both to cut costs and pollution. In central New York, coal is the dominant fuel at power plants, including the university's own small power plant.

It was only natural that the school would turn to the cold depths of Cayuga Lake, four miles from the hilltop campus. The water temperature in the deepest part of the lake is an almost constant 39 degrees.

A team of engineers came up with a simple system of pipes and pumps that pulls the chilly water from 250 feet down in the lake to a heat exchanger on shore. There it would sop up warmth carried from the campus in water circulating through a long loop of pipe. The only other similar system is in Sweden, Cornell officials said. That one cools buildings in downtown Stockholm using chilled water from the Baltic Sea.

W.S. (Lanny) Joyce, the project director, said every step of the construction and operation of the cooling system had been designed to minimize its impact. The intake pipe, sunk two miles out in the lake, would have a sound generator to shoo fish away and lights to deter tiny freshwater shrimp that might otherwise be sucked in, he said. The shrimp, an important link in the lake's food web, reflexively avoid light, he said.

The lake water would never mingle with the water circulating around the campus, which has chemicals in it to prevent rust, he said. The heat would flow from one to the other across stainless steel plates, he said.

The temperature of the piped lake water would rise 10 to 15 degrees at most as it absorbs the heat removed by the campus cooling system, he said. It would be returned to the lake at its shallow, warm south end. During most months the water leaving the cooling system would be cooler than the water around the outflow pipe, so that it would be unlikely to spur the growth of bacteria, according to Cornell's analysis.

Its concentration of nutrients, such as phosphorus, would also be lower than the levels of phosphorus and other nutrients already typical of the shallow waters, the university found. The existing nutrients come mainly from sewage plants, silty streams, and flocks of waterfowl.

If anything, Mr. Joyce said, the flow from the Cornell project would help reduce pollution in the south end of the lake. ''Our water is clearer, cleaner, and cooler,'' he said.

In the end, he said, the conditions in the south end of the lake would likely improve soon in any case, because money from the 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act would be used in the next few years to cut phosphorus levels in the water leaving the sewage plants.

The Cayuga Lake Defense Fund, a local group that was created to fight the cooling project, has attacked nearly every step of the plan. Last year, it hired Alex Horne, a lake expert from El Cerrito, Calif., to assess the project. He contends that the pipe would pull nutrients from the bottom of the lake and release them into the shallow, warm part of the lake, fertilizing it. The pipe ''will cause or increase nuisance blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) which could cover several miles of near shore water in summer,'' he concluded.

Other critics are more focused on what they contend were procedural lapses in approving the project. Doria Higgins, an artist and retired clinical psychologist, has been one of the most energetic foes of Cornell, writing dozens of letters to local, state, and Federal officials, pointing out what she says are dozens of gaps in the project's environmental impact study and in the permits issued by state officials.

For example, she said, the state permit says the project can be stopped if follow-up studies show it is not working as planned, but the university is only required to submit data once a year. ''In the meantime, the plume from the discharge pipe will be running right past the intake area for our drinking water,'' Ms. Higgins said.

Last fall, opponents got a boost when Ralph Nader wrote a letter supporting their fight, calling the project ''an ill-advised boondoggle.''

In contrast, John Kaminsky, the chairman of the Finger Lakes chapter of the Sierra Club, a private group, said that residents should focus more on the biggest sources of pollution -- suburban development and the sewage plants -- and less on a project that has many clear environmental benefits.

In an open letter in the March issue of the group's newsletter, he said that Cornell made an easy target, because it had long been perceived as ''Big Brother on the hill'' by many townsfolk. ''In reality, we are the problem,'' he wrote. ''Every time we flush our toilets, fertilize our lawns, gardens and fields, or wash our cars we contribute to the nutrient loading of the lake.''

Most town officials have sided with the school, and dismissed critics who say the officials have been cowed by the powerful academic institution, which dominates the landscape, hovering over the town. Catherine Valentino, the Ithaca Town Supervisor, said the town had vigorously opposed other Cornell projects, like its plan to build an incinerator to burn waste from the university's school of veterinary medicine.

''We're quite willing to take on Cornell any time we feel it's necessary,'' she said. ''In this case, it's just not necessary.''

Photos: W.S. (Lanny) Joyce, in charge of a plan to pump water from Cayuga Lake, says it would improve the water. Pipes sit near Lake Cayuga as critics fight a plan to join the pipes into a network that would draw frigid water from the depths of the lake to cool Cornell University. (Photographs by Michael J. Okoniewski for The New York Times)(pg. B1); Opponents of the Lake Cayuga pumping plan include Walter Hang, front, who runs a business that maps toxic sites around New York State. Mr. Hang said Cornell University's project would violate Federal law. (Photographs by Michael J. Okoniewski for The New York Times)(pg. B6) Map of Ithaca, N.Y., highlighting Cornell University; A $55 million pumping system would cool Cornell University. At right, Marshall W. Ballard, with Mr. Hang's company, checks water near a discharge pipe. (pg. B6)