Greenidge Generation’s Operation Presents Significant Risk to the Health of Seneca Lake
Written by Jake Welch, Pure Waters President
Excessive thermal pollution and lack of fish protection screens present serious hazards to the health of Seneca Lake and are strongly opposed by Seneca Pure Waters together with other environmental groups. This article provides important information about the impact of current and proposed operations of the Greenidge Generation company that have, or may have, a significant negative impact on Seneca Lake and makes recommendations to prevent further damage.
Greenidge Generation Background
Located in Dresden, the Greenidge Generation power facility obtained approval in September 2016, to operate a natural gas-fueled 106 megawatt (MW) electrical generation facility from the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC). With this approval, Greenidge was also provided a “lightened regulatory regime” by the PSC based on the premise of providing electrical power and thereby serving the public good. In January 2020, Greenidge filed a petition with the PSC to use its power generation as the sole source of electricity for one of its on-site commercial tenants. In actuality, this “tenant” turned out to be Greenidge’s own bitcoin mining operation. Bitcoin mining is the business of verifying cryptocurrency transactions using high-powered computational processing. Even if Greenidge were to mine only five bitcoins, it would produce some $90,000 in daily revenue based on recent market conditions. None of this mining does anything to serve the public good. Rather it produces personal profit for Greenidge and its billion-dollar parent company, Atlas Holdings.
How does the Greenidge operation affect Seneca Lake?
Bitcoin mining requires extensive electrical power and vast amounts of water, all of which is drawn out of Seneca Lake. Per its current Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) permit, Greenidge is shockingly allowed to intake some 134,000,000 gallons of water per day out of Seneca Lake. The permit also allows this volume of water to be warmed to a temperature level of 108°F in the summer and up to 86°F in the winter before being discharged back into the environment (DEC permit dated 10/1/17). This permitted level was granted based on plant operations occurring many years ago . Additionally, the water intake is in an area occupied by fish. Screens have not been installed at the intake to protect native fish populations. This is in derogation of Title 33 United States Code 1326(b) of the Clean Water Act (33 USC 1326(b)).
Concerns of Seneca Pure Waters and other environmental organizations
There are currently 4 key areas of significant concern.
1. Lack of required studies to show the impact on lake
The liberal allowance of the DEC permit occurred during a situation where the plant was to provide a public benefit and, therefore lightened regulation. However, the DEC must have had serious environmental concerns as it charged Greenidge with the task of updating a thermal discharge study that had been filed by previous plant owners back in 2011. The updated environmental investigation was to include “field studies, thermal modeling and submission of an approvable thermal criteria study report”. The report was to be submitted within one year of a schedule approved by the DEC. One would surmise the study would be completed close to the 12 months following issuance of the permit. Under circumstances which have not been made available, nor clear, neither the schedule nor the thermal study report has ever come to fruition. In fact, during this past year Greenidge provided a letter stating it would not provide a thermal study until sometime in the spring of 2022. This would be some five years after the State DEC permit issuance indicating the need for thermal study in the upcoming year or so.
2. Greenidge’s expected plans for expansion
This past year, Greenidge submitted plans for a significant increase in its mining operations that would add four more buildings to form a “data center “. The buildings will house an increased number of computers and require more energy to be produced at the plant. In turn, there will also be more thermal warming of water placed back into Seneca Lake.
3. Documented evidence of current impact
Title 6 – New York Code of Rules and Regulations, Part 704.2 B (2) (6 NYCRR 704.2 B (2)) mandates that no thermal discharge over 70°F shall be permitted at any time for water bodies classified as trout streams. Under that same regulation, temperatures are not to be raised more than 2° from June to September and not more than 5° in the remaining months of the year. These numbers should be presumed as proper standards establishing what is and what is not thermal pollution for the waters of New York State, inclusive of the Keuka Outlet where Greenidge discharges millions of gallons of water per day.
What has been recorded from discharge directly into the Keuka Outlet showed temperature readings in the late summer/early fall of 2020 near 90°F and others near 100°F. These temperature readings also indicated the stream temperature being raised multiple times beyond the 2°F maximum allowed. These extreme temperatures threaten the reproductive abilities of trout which are dependent on colder stream waters. In addition, the lack of protective screens at the point of water intake threaten all fish populations.
4. Harmful algal blooms on Seneca Lake
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are associated with excessive water warming. Other than in the past year, where there was a statewide drought, the area just north of the Keuka outlet has been tagged by Pure Water’s monitors as a hotspot due to recurrent blooms occurring in that area. Clearly a prompt and thorough environmental study should be conducted to evaluate the impact of these plant operations. Putting this off to the year 2022 is not an acceptable answer and draws concerns as to whether that will even occur.What can be done
The good news is that screens can be placed to protect fish and a closed water coolant system can be installed to avoid fish destruction and thermal pollution at the Greenidge plant. Regulations 33 USC 1326 and 6 NYCRR 704.5 require operations that produce thermal discharges to use the “best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact”. It could be reasonably assumed that Greenidge has avoided taking such steps for financial reasons. At one of the Torrey Town meetings, Greenidge’s plant manager, Dale Irwin, indicated that the cost of such measures could range in the area of $25 million. Even if this were the case, a few months of bitcoin operation at the plant would pay for the cost. Local governments, as well as the state of New York, must also recognize that millions upon millions of dollars in economic loss could incur should unwanted thermal warming of Seneca Lake increase the production of toxic HABs. The wine and tourism industries, for example, are heavily dependent upon this lake being seen as a healthy place for people to visit.
In November of this year, our organization helped to submit over 400 emails to the Town of Torrey asking that it hold back on approving Greenidge’s data center proposal until a thermal study is produced. Unfortunately, the town ignored this plea. Seneca Pure Waters will continue to work with other lake organizations, such as the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes (CPFL) and Seneca Guardian to stop industrial threats. The Liquid Propane Gas storage facility and the Romulus incinerator plant are examples of situations where grassroots support helped turn the tide in curbing threats to our lake. Your continued membership support is critical to continue such efforts on your behalf.