“The Acid Rain and the 21st District”

Those of us living in the Adirondacks during the 1960s and 1970s remember acid rain from Midwestern coal burning power plants. It destroyed many of our lakes and damaged our ecosystem. It is a story worth repeating because we cannot let it happen to another generation of residents in the 21st Congressional District who enjoy our hiking, hunting, fishing, and watersports.

As a result of acid rain, it is estimated that almost one quarter of our lakes died while death rates for trees like our Red Spruce doubled or tripled. Only black flies thrive in acid rain.1

Our region has only recently recovered from this poisoning. Yet efforts to cut current federal environmental regulations again threaten us.In the name of reducing regulations, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), E. Scott Pruitt, has proposed reversing the Clean Power Plan proposed by his own agency. In a convoluted legal argument, Mr. Pruitt has argued that the EPA does not have the authority to propose this plan. He asserts that Congress never intended the EPA to go beyond limiting emissions from coal burning plants. He asserts the EPA is wrong to require the use of newer technologies. He is using the EPA’s own lawyers to defeat its goals. The chilling end to his report details his feelings about the risks to our children:

“To the extent that states use other mechanisms to comply with the NAAQS [standards] and still achieve the criteria pollution reductions that would have occurred under the CPP, this proposed rescission will not have a disproportionate adverse effect on children’s health.” 2

This can be translated as follows: If you in the NYS 21st Congressional district are capable of finding other ways to encourage upwind states to reduce pollution, your children won’t suffer.

In addition to gutting its proposals, Mr. Pruitt has reduced staffing at the EPA significantly, particularly among scientists, while his own office has grown.3

What we need to do is clear:

For those interested in more background:

What is acid rain and what did it do to our District?

Acid rain is formed when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides mix with rainwater, causing it to be acidic. The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides come primarily from the generation of electricity from coal-burning electrical plants and automotive emissions.

In the 1960s and 1970s, coal-burning electrical plants in the Midwest produced high levels of these dangerous particles, which led to acid rain which fell in the Northeast. The Adirondacks were hit the hardest by this pollution. In part, this is because the wind blows from west to east to our region. In addition, our ecosystem is uniquely vulnerable. Many of our small lakes became acidic and could not support marine life, leading to terrible damage. Since our mountains are bedrock covered by a thin layer of soil which cannot absorb this acid, many of our plants were poisoned.

In many areas, it was our fishermen who first noticed the problems: trout giving way to stunted perch and bullheads.4 Some local residents tried to correct the acidity of their lakes by dumping limestone in them, a futile effort as the coal burning in the Midwest continued. Over time, the bad health effects from this pollution on downwind humans became increasingly obvious.

Why did this happen to us?

Our government was not prepared. Environmental issues like the problems with DDT,the poisoning of Times Beach with dioxin, and exposure of Vietnam soldiers to Agent Orange had raised public knowledge. Yet the Federal Clean Air Act allowed states to determine their own compliance plans. On the East coast, most power plants converted tolower-sulfur oil, but upwind the Midwestern states continued to burn coal.5

What was the answer?

Scientific analysis was needed. In 1983, the Adirondack Lakes Survey (ALS) was established to measure and monitor the environment and provide a scientific basis for policy decisions. This group continues its work.6 From a policy perspective, recognition that national standards were needed ultimately led to the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments which specifically had an acid rain provision which forced continued reduction in sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides. Several important principles became evident:

  1. Pollution is not just a state problem. It requires the attention of the Federal Government.
  2. Careful science must form the basis for policy.
  3. These policies take years to correct damage, and require continued work and monitoring.

How are we doing?

Acid rain has been reduced. Adirondack lakes and ecosystems have improved. Our fisherman, hunters, hikers, boaters, and families all benefit. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed continuing this progress with the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would:

  1. Continue to improve emissions at coal burning plants.
  2. Substitute natural gas for coal.
  3. Increase renewable energy sources.

Predictably, the Clean Power Plan was challenged in court, a normal process in our democracy. The EPA initially stood by its proposal, as it should. Under Mr. Pruitt, the EPA will withdraw this plan. Even worse, his rationale will deprive the agency of the ability to move us forward into the modern era of sustainability. Our beautiful ecosystems, our region, will again suffer.

  1. There is an excellent report form 1999 available from Colgate University at http://classes.colgate.edu/aleventer/geol101/acidadir/acid14.htm. This includes some vivid pictures.
  2. Federal Register/Vol 82. No. 198/Monday, October 16, 2017/Proposed Rules, page 48048.
  3. E.P.A. Officials, Disheartened by Agency’s Direction, Are Leaving in Droves” by Lisa Friedman, Marino Affo, and Derek Kravitz. The New York Times, December 20, 2017.
  4. “Acid Rain in Adirondacks Disrupts the Chain of Life” by Ralph Blumenthal in The New York Times, June 8, 1981.
  5. Acid Rain in Adirondacks Disrupts the Chain of Life” by Ralph Blumenthal in The New York Times, June 8, 1981.
  6. http://www.adirondacklakessurvey.org/als_overview.inc.html

“of the people, by the people, for the people.”

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