Saturday, December 5, 2015

Acid Rain Reductions Should Inform Climate Change Strategy

acid rainAs nations engage in the Paris climate summit, we can take comfort in the fact that we have learned how to vanquish acid rain over the past 30 years and we can apply the same methods to curb global warming.

There was much to celebrate in New York when the International Acid Rain Conference: Acid Rain 2015 was held at the Riverside Convention Center in Rochester in late October. The pollutants that cause acid rain have been curbed sharply.

The amount of sulfur-based air pollution falling on New York State has been reduced by a whopping 92 percent since 1985. That was the year when New York enacted the nation’s first law to control acid rain.  Nitrogen oxides have decreased by more than 70 percent over those same 30 years.

In the near future, additional cuts are expected in acid rain. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the proposed Clean Power Plan will help. The cross-state rule requires reductions in sulfur and nitrogen pollution to protect public health from smog and fine particles of soot. The Clean Power Plan is aimed at reducing carbon, but the efficiencies needed to accomplish that task will reduce acid rain too.

If EPA can revive its recently suspended rules for mercury emissions, those too would bring acid rain side-benefits. Last year, the Province of Ontario stunned and thrilled New York by announcing it had stopped burning coal to create electricity.

All of this is great news for the Adirondack Park – a six-million-acre national treasure that has suffered the worst acid rain damage in the nation. Its pure waters and wilderness don’t receive the most pollution of any region, but its thin soils allowed acid rain to cause the first, and most lasting, damage here.

NADP Trends Map 2014Prevailing winds funnel most of the Midwest’s air pollution toward the Adirondack Mountains, where it falls to earth as acid rain, snow, sleet, fog and dry particles. However, as the nation slowly transitions away from coal and other fossil fuels, even the Adirondacks are showing signs of recovery. Acid rain is finally on the decline!

It’s rare that scientists and environmental advocates get to celebrate a victory like this. Most of our past meetings have focused on strategies for slowing the damage. Now, we can focus on reversing it. It was important to tell our story in Rochester to colleagues from around the world at this once-every-five-years event. Many nations are just beginning to confront acid rain.

It also gave us a chance to thank colleagues from around the country who have made a huge impact along the way, including Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, American Lung Association, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the NY State Energy Research and Development Authority, and many others. Every NY Attorney General from Robert Abrams to Eric Schneiderman has helped by pressing legal actions against polluters that won settlements and hastened regulatory action.

The U.S. federal government has been studying air pollution since the 1950s. It took 20 years or so before a popular movement began in the Adirondacks and southern Canada to stop acid rain. By necessity, New York became a leader in acid rain research, advocacy, litigation and regulation.

The Adirondack Council was founded in 1975 and immediately attacked acid rain as a top priority. It wasn’t easy to persuade anyone acid rain was real, especially in states whose economies depended on coal mining and cheap electricity. We needed hard data.

For the past 40 years, New York officials and acid rain activists have focused on ensuring that the data are collected, understood and employed to air pollution.

Thanks to testing by the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corp. and the National Atmospheric Deposition Program (more than a dozen federal agencies and research institutions) we now know what is coming out of smokestacks and tailpipes nationwide. We know where it is landing and how it reacts with soil, vegetation, water and wildlife after it lands. Scientists can model how smokestacks, automobiles, agriculture, construction and diesel equipment interact to create acid rain.

That means, for the first time, scientists can show us real-world examples of what will be saved and what will be sacrificed by proposed air pollution regulations.

Leading acid rain research scientist Dr. Charles Driscoll of Syracuse University described it well in his keynote address to the international conference. Under the new “critical loads” approach, scientists would use chemical, biological, geological and atmospheric measurements to determine how much upwind air pollution it takes to damage the area’s most sensitive plants and wildlife – the “critical load” of pollution.

Want to keep your heritage strain brook trout fishery alive? Then an upwind pollution limit of “x” is needed to safeguard its food, habitat and reproduction. Want to protect the high-elevation forests that shelter an endangered bird? Then a pollution limit of “y” is needed upwind of the mountain tops.

In the Adirondack Park, every lake basin and river valley reacts differently to pollution due to variations in size, soil chemistry, forest type, flow rates, etc. Some lakes with richer-than-average calcium soils around them suffered less damage and have recovered quickly as pollution has decreased. Others have been damaged so severely, it will take 300 years or more for them to regain their chemical balance without additional action.

Biological recovery – the re-population of native plants and animals – cannot happen in our dead lakes and impaired rivers until chemical balance returns. If we hope to accelerate that recovery, additional measures will be needed. Critical loads modeling can and should show us how to do it.

This is quite an improvement. When New York enacted the first acid rain law in the nation in 1985, it had to guess how much good the initial pollution cuts would do. When Congress created the national acid rain program in 1990, it chose to cut sulfur-based air pollution from power plants by 50 percent. Everyone knew 50 percent would help, but not how much. Now, such experiments are no longer needed.

By basing air pollution limits on downwind critical loads, science can tailor pollution controls to protect both public health and the environment. Applying such a standard might be unpopular with industries — at first anyway. It would reveal the need for additional pollution controls in many places.

However, it will also establish a limit to the limits. We will finally be able to answer the perpetual question of the regulated: How much reduction is enough? This question is being asked everywhere on earth today, from Rochester to Paris.

At Acid Rain 2015, we learned that China has reduced the amount of fine particles and sulfur produced per unit of electricity since 2007. But the electric grid is expanding, causing more pollution overall. Plus, nitrogen-based pollutants and volatile organic compounds still threaten human health and the environment, calling for a more comprehensive approach, according to Yu Zhao of Nanjing University.

Stefan Astrom of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute explained that acid rain has declined sharply in Sweden, but scientists are trying to pinpoint which of several overlapping regulations did the most good. This would help the European Union replicate only the most efficient controls across northern Europe.

Closer to home, PhD candidate Chuan Tang of Clarkson University (Potsdam, NY) showed that property values dropped significantly on Adirondack homes where acid rain had contaminated the local fishery with mercury. Demonstrating tangible financial harm from contamination of the local food chain is important. It could motivate policymakers to set a new critical load standard to prevent it.

Looking ahead, our success against acid rain will seem like a hollow victory if we allow the same plants and animals to perish due to dramatic changes in our climate. Brook trout, for example, are vulnerable to rising temperatures in rivers and streams. Some changes have already begun. Fortunately, we can apply the same methods to climate that worked to curb acid rain.

New York and the EPA both used a cap-and-trade program to provide financial incentives to those who made the fastest, deepest pollution cuts. This allowed companies to profit by innovations in pollution reduction methods. EPA’s program reached its goals ahead of schedule and for a fraction of the estimated price. Today, nine Northeast states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are using cap-and-trade for the same purpose.

Thanks to Adirondacker Bill McKibben and, we know the critical load for carbon worldwide is 350 parts per million, suspended in the air. Cap-and-trade can get us there in the quickest, least expensive way.

Perhaps the best indication that the Adirondack Park is recovering from its long, acidic nightmare can be found in a single fish story.

Silver Lake lies in the heart of the Silver Lake Wilderness Area. Back in the 1970s, it was considered dead. More than half of its adult fish had suffocated from gill damage caused by acid rain. Its pH remained too low to accommodate reproduction.

Today, it has recovered its chemical balance. Fish are thriving in it again.  People are again enjoying the benefits of its clean water. In May of 2013, a surprised angler, Rick Beauchamp of nearby Mayfield, hooked and landed a six-pound, 22.5-inch brook trout there. That’s a big brookie. It set a new state record. If we act now on climate, the next generation of brook trout will have a fighting chance to survive too.

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Before John Sheehan joined the Adirondack Council's staff in 1990, he was the managing editor of the Malone Evening Telegram, and previously worked as a journalist for the Troy Record, (Schenectady) Daily Gazette, Watertown Daily Times and Newsday. For the past 20 years, John has been the voice of the Adirondack Council on radio and television, and on the pages of local, regional and national media.

6 Responses

  1. Tim-Brunswick says:

    The reduction in acid rain over the ADKs has been so significant that many trout ponds/lakes that were previously considered “dead” have been able to make a comeback. Silver Lake’s recovery is incredible.

    Another noteworthy pond is “Brook Trout” Lake in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. Reports following the stocking of the “Horn Lake” variety of Brookies in Brook Trout Lake are very encouraging and I believe there are reports that “Indian Lake” near Squaw Lake in the Moose River Area also shows signs of recovering.

    Let’s give them some time to recover though, before we beat a path to their shores!

  2. chris says:

    What an incredible accomplishment! Can you tell me how this was accomplished? By targeting the main polluters, mid-west power plants? Could the fix be a model for climate change abatement, or are the structures different?

    • Boreas says:


      Most of the decrease in ‘rain pollution’ in our area was indeed accomplished by scrubbing midwest coal powerplant emissions and shutting some plants down altogether. However the specific ‘acid rain’ pollution DAMAGE is usually unique to regions with thin soils that cannot buffer or raise the pH of the acid rain. The ADK region was particularly susceptible. Other regions were prone to above ground damage to stone monuments and buildings – anywhere there was exposed limestone, which basically dissolves with low pH.

      Yes it would be effective globally, but most countries that depend on dirty power are finding more trouble with air quality (smog, etc.) than acid rain. The pollution source is basically the same, just a different effect. Of course these emissions also contribute to greenhouse gases which are implicated as part of global warming, assuming one believes it exists.

      But the problem is not gone – just in remission. The EPA which regulates these emissions in the US has been under attack since it was implemented by the Nixon administration. The last decade or so has seen increased pressure to eliminate EPA entirely, which would likely end up scuttling any gains that have been seen in the last generation.

    • John Sheehan says:

      The structures are the same. The pollution allowance cap-and-trade program set up to control acid rain in New York in 1985 is basically the same as the one the feds adopted in 1990 and the one used by the Northeast’s nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative today.

      In fact, cap-and-trade works better for carbon than it does for sulfur and nitrogen. You don’t need to worry about one geographic region buying and using too many allowances in a given week, or month, and thereby creating a pollution hot spot that punishes the region downwind of it.

      With carbon, what matters is the total amount in the air globally. So minor increases in one place don’t matter as long as the total amount emitted globally goes down.

  3. Ethan says:

    John, thank you for the terrific piece, and for all the hard work you, the Adirondack Council, and all the related organizations you name have done over the last 40 years on this issue. In our corner of the Park (NW of Tupper) the lakes and ponds were very hard-hit. It’s been years since I’ve been to one pond whose fishery was completely wiped out by the early 90s. After reading your story of Silver Lake, I’m going to have to trek out there and see if the trout have returned!

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