Cornell University has proposed to tap one of the largest and most historic of New York's Finger Lakes for up to 46 Million Gallons per day of cold water to help air condition its campus in Ithaca, NY.1 This Citizen's Guide outlines how Cornell's unprecedented Lake Source Cooling Project has generated an environmental controversy with public policy implications for New York and the nation as a whole.

First, the Guide describes how Cornell's private use of Cayuga Lake would generate pollution problems that would impair public use of that beleaguered body of water. Construction of a proposed Heat Exchange Facility, for example, would disturb a lake-side property that is contaminated with toxic lead and cadmium as well as potentially cancer-causing polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.2 As a result, toxic pollutants would be released into the lake.

Lake Source Cooling also would discharge millions of gallons per day of warmed, phosphorus-rich water into a portion of the lake approximately ten feet deep. That discharge would exacerbate nutrient and silt pollution problems that warrant special regulatory action pursuant to the New York State Priority Waterbodies3 and the Clean Water Act 303(d) programs.4 Phosphorus levels near the discharge, for example, already exceed guidance levels.5

Second, the Guide reveals for the first time how state authorities failed to enforce a critical provision of the federal Clean Water Act that prohibits Cornell's proposed "new" discharge of phosphorus-rich water into a lake that already has serious water quality problems. At the same time, legally mandated Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) that are required to help Cayuga Lake attain water quality standards have yet to be adopted.

Third, the Guide outlines a proposal to replace Cornell's out-moded, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) water chillers without threatening Cayuga Lake. If this alternative to lake source cooling were implemented, Cornell would serve as a national model of how legally-banned CFC refrigerants can be replaced without creating environmental hazards.

Finally, the inability of state and federal authorities to protect Cayuga Lake bodes ill for waterbodies across the country with similar water quality impairments. This Guide illustrates how water pollution hazards often persist for decades despite the mandates of law and the expenditures of billions of tax dollars. The Guide urges concerned citizens to participate actively in formulating public policies that are critical for assuring protection of the nation's waters.

Cornell's Air Conditioning Quandary

Cornell currently air conditions its campus with cold water generated by eight giant chillers. Seven of those units use chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) refrigerants whose production and importation has been banned by the U. S. Clean Air Act. Only the newest unit does not use CFCs. While Cornell has reportedly stockpiled enough CFCs to last for years, it is only a matter of time before that supply is depleted and the chillers have to be retrofitted or replaced.

Instead of immediately switching to non-CFC refrigerants or replacing its out-moded chillers with state-of-the-art alternatives, Cornell plans to continue to utilize its environmentally threatening, energy-inefficient chillers for an indeterminate period. Concurrently, Cornell is on the verge of breaking ground on an unprecedented project that would expand its chilled water supply by tapping nearby Cayuga Lake for up to 46 million gallons of cold water per day.

Summary of the LSC Project, its Problems and Our Recommendations

  1. The Lake Source Cooling Project
  2. Cayuga Lake's Serious Water Pollution Problems
  3. Water Pollution Threats Posed by Lake Source Cooling
  4. Conclusion
  5. A Proposed Plan of Action for Cornell

Prepared by the Cayuga Lake Defense Fund (CLDF).
For more information, Call: 275-9054 or 272-7914 or email

CLDF 1998