Mining Controversy Part 3: Seneca Lake Aquatic Life
DRESDEN, N.Y. (WENY) -- One of the primary concerns raised about Bitcoin mining is that it can be environmentally taxing. The computers used to mine Bitcoin consume massive amounts of energy, at large-scale facilities.
At Greenidge Generation’s facility in the town of Torrey, in Yates County, 7,000 Bitcoin mining machines are running 24/7. The blockchain uses approximately 19 megaWatts of power; Greenidge is permitted to use up to 107 megaWatts at its facility, which is also a natural gas power plant. Recently, Greenidge received approval to build four new buildings on its property, which will eventually house 10,000 more Bitcoin miners.
Environmental groups in the Finger Lakes region have expressed concern about the impact on Seneca Lake. Greenidge is permitted to withdraw 139,248,000 gallons of water daily, which is then heated and cooled before 134,000,000 gallons are then discharged back into the lake. State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPEDS) permits issued to Geenidge by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation allow the discharge water to reach up to 108F in the winter, and 86F in the summer.
Bill Mattingly, At-Large Delegate to the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, said the SPDES permit is a big concern, especially considering the facility plans to continue to add mining machines.
“I am very concerned about the amount of water, the hot water that the plant will produce when it turns on this bitcoin mine expansion,” said Mattingly.
The Greenidge facility is located immediately next to the Keuka Lake Outlet and has an intake and discharge pipe that runs near the outlet’s entrance. The outlet is classified as a class C fish stream by the Department of Environmental Conservation. According to New York State rules and regulations Section 704.2: Criteria Governing Thermal Discharges: “ No discharge at a temperature over 70 degrees Fahrenheit shall be permitted at any time to streams classified for trout.”
Trout feed most actively in water temperatures from 52F to 64F. When water temperatures hit 68F, trout can become stressed and if temperatures rise to 75F for long periods of time, it can be lethal to some trout species.
In a reply to WENY News regarding the water discharge temperatures, the DEC said “ the current limits for temperature and temperature differential were derived from earlier Clean Water Act Section 316(a) thermal studies designed to produce representative results and guide DEC’s decision making that is protective of water quality and habitat.”
Michael McKeon, Greenidge Generation Representative, said the facility is required to submit temperature readings to the DEC every month and that the facility keeps limits well below the 108F and 86F limits.
“ We are not blasting heated water into the lake, that's not true,” said McKeon, “ We have the most advanced technology and we will continue to invest in the most advanced technology to protect the fish in the lake.”
Another concern from the environmental groups is that there has been no thermal study completed; a study is not anticipated to be done until 2022. The DEC said a Thermal Discharge Study Plan was submitted in 2017 and the plan was approved by the DEC in January of 2021.
According to the DEC, “ the current limits for temperature and temperature differential were derived from earlier Clean Water Act Section 316(a) thermal studies…” and following the submission of the thermal study the DEC will “ use the results of this study to determine the need for an additional thermal standard study into Keuka Outlet and Seneca Lake…”
Jacob Welch, President of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association believes that if Greenidge Generation cared about the lake, this study would have been completed before the mining operation went online.
“If Greenidge is pro-environment, we are not hurting the environment, why aren't they open to this idea of the study, why has it been delayed from 2017?” asked Welch.
According to Greenidge Generation’s Technology Installation Operation Plan, Wedge Wire screens that prevent aquatic life from being sucked into the intake system will be tested and installed in September 2022. In the meantime, McKeon said the company has installed variable speed equipment to deter fish from the intake system.
--Technology Installation and Operation Plan
“Most fish just swim away, they get pushed away, they stay away from the system, we see very few mature fish in the system” explained McKeon, “We installed $400,000 worth of equipment variable speed equipment to deter the fish from entering the system.”
Professor Robert Howarth, biogeochemistry and ecosystem scientist at Cornell University, said with or without wedge wire screens, some harm will still come to the fish.
“Smaller organisms just go in there and they are all going to get killed, obviously,” said Howarth, “Fish can get run-up and pulled against the grating and that too will kill them.”
Environmental groups in the region have also expressed worry about the volume of water being drawn into the facility and discharged back into the lake on a daily basis. SPDES permits allow Greenidge Generation to withdraw 139,248,000 gallons of water per day and discharge 134 million gallons per day.
John Rogers, Senior Energy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists said power plants like Greenidge Generation are known to use a lot of water through the course of a year.
“Power plants in the U.S. withdrew more than one hundred billion gallons a day on average,” said Rogers, “So that means one hundred million gallons from lakes and rivers and streams, so to put that in perspective, that's about twice as much water that goes over Niagara Falls every day.”
Rodgers said while the amount of water Greenidge Generation is using for its facility is a normal number, there are things this facility could do to mitigate its environmental impact.
“There are technologies that get us away from water, there are technologies that withdraw a lot less water for cooling,’ said Rodgers. “If you think about wind turbines or solar panels, they are not using water as part of their electricity generation process.”
This is the third installment in a seven-part series that will be airing on WENY News at 6 PM all week. Throughout the rest of the week, we will take a deep look into other environmental concerns presented by the opposition such as, Harmful Algal Blooms, greenhouse gas emissions, and the effects expanding Bitcoin mining at the facility could have on tourism in the Finger Lakes region, which draws in millions of visitors and generates billions of dollars in state and local economic impact.