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Environmental groups turn focus to Greenidge’s water permits

Greenidge Generation uses water from Seneca Lake to cool its natural gas-fired power generation.
Vaughn Golden
Greenidge Generation uses water from Seneca Lake to cool its natural gas-fired power generation.

Environmental groups are pushing regulators to deny renewal of water permits for a power plant along Seneca Lake that’s come under scrutiny for its cryptocurrency-mining operation.

Greenidge Generation’s permits for water intake and discharge are up for renewal on Sept. 30 and environmental activists concerned about the impacts of the facility’s cryptocurrency-mining operation argue regulators should deny them.

The natural gas-burning plant uses water from Seneca Lake as part of its cooling process. In turn, it returns warmer water to the lake at maximum temperatures of 108˚ in the summer and 86˚ in the winter, as stipulated by its current permits administered through the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last week, EarthJustice, an organization that pursues legal action on environmental matters, sent a letter to the EPA requesting it to intervene to block renewal of the permits on several fronts.

At the core of the issue, environmental activists argue, is that the facility is now using much of the electricity it generates, and therefore more water, to mine cryptocurrency, compared to the last time the permit was renewed in 2017.

“This facility is having the same harm, and frankly even more harm right, because now it’s operating 24/7, than it was having back in the 70s,” Jill Heap, a lawyer for EarthJustice said. “So, at this point, it’s really important, the fact that this is not a public benefit power-generating facility, but is operating for cryptocurrency mining, completely changes the balance of cost to benefit.”

Greenidge contends that the existing permits allow the facility to operate at near full capacity, regardless of how the electricity it generates is used, and that standard should still apply with renewed permits.

“We operate in full compliance with our water permit and have every day since it was issued, and will continue working within the NYSDEC’s timelines and oversight,” a Greenidge spokesperson wrote in a statement.

In 2010, before the facility had been converted from a coal plant, the EPA granted Greenidge a thermal variance, allowing it to release slightly warmer water than allowed by state permits. EarthJustice argues that the current thermal variance should not be renewed, in part again due to the nature of how Greenidge is using the facility to generate cryptocurrency.

As part of its argument against renewing the variance, EarthJustice also asserts that Greenidge has been slow to study and mitigate the effects of its releasing the warm water into the lake, something environmental activists argue is contributing to an overall warming of the lake and other effects like harmful algal blooms. EarthJustice also argues that Greenidge has delayed and is only now installing mitigation measures in the form of wedgewire screens, to prevent fish and other aquatic life from being pulled into its system.

Greenidge contends that there’s no substantial evidence to support the claim that its outflow has any negative impacts on the lake.

Greenidge’s current water intake and discharge permits expire on Sept. 30. In June, the DEC denied renewal of the plant’s air pollution permits, though Greenidge is still operating while the process is appealed. The appeals process could last several years.