A controversial crypto mining and power plant in Yates County is about to finish installing wire screens meant to better protect the surrounding Seneca Lake days before a state deadline.
Greenidge Generation Holdings Inc. is expected to complete installing cylindrical wedge wire screens at the facility to prevent fish mortality and offset impacts to Seneca Lake’s ecosystem by mid-next week. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) extended the company’s deadline this fall to Jan. 20.
“We are a bunch of locals who really do care about the lake — we’re not a bunch of computers as people might make us out to be,” Greenidge Generation President Dale Irwin said. “Plenty of my teammates live and enjoy the lake every summer, every winter. We’re really excited that after 80 years of this plant operating, we can put in the best technology available to help protect the lake.”
The facility sucks in more than130 million gallons of water from the lake each day and then expels water about 108 degrees Fahrenheit back into the body of water, which the DEC says kills fish, eggs and other aquatic life.
The DEC initially allotted Greenidge five years to design, study and finish the project. Greenidge didn’t apply for the required Article 15 permit and a Water Quality Certificate from DEC until March 18, 2022. Public comments were accepted on the applications until Sept. 1 and DEC issued authorizations to complete the work Sept. 27.
“DEC subjects all applications for environmental permits to a transparent and rigorous review process to protect public health and the environment,” according to a statement from the DEC on Friday.
Advocates who’ve pushed for improved protections for the lake’s aquatic life for years say the screens are insufficient, citing a DEC pilot study that shows they’re about 77% effective.
“It’s doing nothing to protect our water in terms of the withdrawal and the discharge of heated water back into our lake that is responsible for partially our problems with harmful algal blooms,” said Yvonne Taylor, Seneca Lake Guardian’s vice president. “That’s a toxin for both humans and animals.”
Greenidge stresses the DEC studied and approved the screens and process for several years, and the plant is in compliance with the state’s requirements.
DEC reviewed and approved a Thermal Study Criteria workplan for Greenidge, which submitted a Thermal Criteria study to the department Aug. 31, 2022. The DEC continues to review that study, according to the department.
“The installation of the wedgewire screens is part of the suite of technologies that comprise the [best technology available],” according to the DEC on friday. “The 0.5 mm slot-width wedgewire screens with an intake velocity of less than 0.5 feet per second and variable speed drive pumps represent [the best technology available] at the Greenidge facility. DEC expects the combination of these technologies will minimize impingement and entrainment of fish, juvenile fish and eggs. DEC expects it will be equivalent to the reductions the facility would have achieved if it had installed a closed-cycle cooling system.”
Greenidge is required to report to the department how successful the upgrades are in minimizing harmful effects to the lake.
Greenidge president Irwin added critics don’t understand the process, as it took the state years of study and evaluation.
“This takes years of studies, engineering and procurement that’s prescribed and a procedure that’s sketched out by the DEC, the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] as a backstop, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Irwin said. “…When we received this permit five or six years ago, we knew it was going to take a full five years.”
Leaders with Seneca Lake Guardian say they will file suit against the plant at the end of the month, alleging insufficient data to the DEC about the discharge’s impact on the lake and compliance with federal water regulations. Seneca Lake Guardian, with counsel Earthjustice, filed a 60-day notice of intent to file a citizens’ suit Nov. 17.
Complicating matters for the plant, recent reports show Greenidge is millions of dollars in debt and may file for bankruptcy. A spokesperson with Greenidge on Friday stressed the company would not have completed the screens if it didn’t intend to keep operating, and the recent public filing shows how the company restructured its debt with a primary lender and improved its financial footing.
Environmental advocates say they won’t stop fighting for the plant’s operations to stop altogether, regardless of the DEC-approved upgrades.
“They’re in complete denial,” Taylor said. “I mean, it’s over. They need to close down and, you know, let our community heal.”
The DEC last June denied Greenidge’s application to renew its air permit because of its greenhouse gas emissions that are not in keeping with the state’s climate emission goals set in the 2019 Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act.
Greenidge appealed the decision, and is allowed to keep operating through the ongoing hearings.
The Greenidge Generation LLC issues conference concluded Wednesday, according to the DEC. The Administrative Law Judge scheduled a hearing for Jan. 13 for stipulation of Facts to be agreed to and signed by the company, DEC staff and petitioners.
Greenidge’s brief is due Feb. 1. DEC and petitioners must submit response briefs by March 1.
No further submissions are allowed unless subsequently authorized by the Administrative Law Judge, according to the DEC.
Assemblywoman Anna Kelles is eager for the DEC’s response and judicial decision expected later this year.
“That will certainly impact Greenidge’s ability to move forward because if they do not have an air permit, they can’t continue to move forward,” said Kelles, a Democrat from Ithaca.
Plants like Greenidge are exempt from the state’s two-year moratorium on proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining operations. DEC will evaluate cryptocurrency mining and perform a full environmental impact assessment of the industry over the next two years, including the state’s ability to reach its lofty climate goals established in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
The information will guide what lawmakers do to regulate the industry, or plants like Greenidge, moving forward. Lawmakers today said they have not ruled out more large-scale bans within the industry in the state.
The DEC has not notified Greenidge of potential inclusion in its study to date.