Great strides have been made in recent decades to protect the Adirondack Park’s environment from acid rain, but more work still needs to be done. That’s according to scientists, environmentalists and natural resource managers who attended a conference about acid rain in the Adirondacks Thursday at the Hilton Hotel in Saratoga Springs.
The event was organized by the Adirondack Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Acid rain has had its greatest impact on the southwestern Adirondacks, where it has reduced species diversity and the abundance of aquatic life in stream and lakes, chemically altered soils, and caused a decline in tree species such as the red spruce and sugar maples. The Adirondacks is particularly vulnerable because of its acid-sensitive forest and aquatic ecosystems.
But many of the damaged habitats are recovering because of regulations that were created in recent decades to limit air pollutants that cause acid rain. The regulations have targeted both power plants in the Midwest and motor vehicles.
Acid rain is caused mainly by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. In 2013, eighty-two percent of sulfur dioxide occurred from stationary fuel-combustion sources such as power plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During the same year, fifty-nine percent of nitrogen oxide emissions were from transportation sources and twenty-eight percent were from stationary sources.
The EPA states that from 1990 to 2013, there was a seventy-seven percent decrease in sulfur dioxide emissions and a forty-nine percent decrease in total nitrogen oxide emissions.
Charles Driscoll is a professor at Syracuse University who has been studying acid rain in the Adirondacks for decades. Driscoll noted that because of the reductions that many lakes are now once again supporting species like brook trout. However, he also said that some lakes will take centuries to recover.
“We’ve seen a partial recovery, but there is still quite a bit of damage, particularly on soils and streams,” Driscoll said. “I think that we’re part way there … but we need additional reductions to more fully recover.”
Driscoll said New York state should work to create a critical load standard for acid rain pollutants. The critical load would be a scientific measurement of how much acid rain pollution that waters, soils and ecosystems could handle before they suffer damage. Critical loads can help guide management decisions. They are commonly used in Europe.
“I think we could pull that together with the science community in discussions with people from the state, attorney generals office, (state Department of Environmental Conservation), and other groups,” Driscoll said. “I think we could establish a level that we would like to see in the Adirondacks to protect Adirondack resources. And why not do that now and set that out there as a model as we’re having these national discussions about emissions.”
In addition to acid rain, the topic of climate change was addressed at the conference, mainly by EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck. In June, the EPA announced a Clean Power Plan that requires power plants nationwide to carry out a 30-percent cut in total carbon emissions by 2030. The EPA predicts the emissions improvements needed to cut carbon pollution will also result in an additional 25-percent cut in acid rain causing sulfur- and nitrogen-based pollution.
Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said that many Adirondack environmental groups will be submitting comments to the EPA on the plan.
“I think that the message I heard today that the remaining battle against acid deposition and mercury in the Adirondack Park needs to be linked to a sensible energy policy and a policy on addressing climate change,” said Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth.
Photo by Mike Lynch: Streams in the Adirondack Park are still suffering from damage caused by acid rain.