As the nation mourns the passing of George H. W. Bush, the President who signed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 creating America’s first acid rain program – a conference of scientists and advocates has concluded that the fight to stop acid rain is nearly won. Sadly, victory is now in doubt due to the Trump administration’s proposed pollution rule changes.
It feels like we are a marathon runner who has been tripped with the finish line in sight. In 1990, President Bush understood that the United States was supposed to set an example for the rest of the world when it comes to protecting the environment. The current Environmental Protection Agency is pushing hard in the other direction, imposing reductions to environmental protections that took a generation to enact.
Last week, the Adirondack Council co-hosted with the Environmental Defense Fund a conference Acid Rain: Protecting Our Gains, Finishing the Job. Sponsored in part by the F.M. Kirby Foundation, the conference brought together 53 acid rain scientists, government officials and advocates in Saratoga Springs. President Bush passed away the next day. Clean water, clean air, public health and economic progress are threatened today.
America is facing unprecedented, severe and sustained attacks on science and on the bipartisan progress we’ve made reducing acid rain, air pollution, and climate change. That progress has saved lives, at very little cost, while sparking the recovery of lakes, fisheries, and tourism across the Adirondack North Country.
One of the greatest concerns expressed at the conference was for backsliding on major air pollution rules that have produced dramatic environmental results at modest cost. Scientists noted that the water chemistry of the Adirondacks has made a remarkable recovery from acid rain, because of the steep reductions in air pollution since 1990. It took a long time to achieve those reductions and already-sensitive soils were damaged from past acid rain. In many places, the landscape has lost its ability to withstand new pollution. Depending on local conditions, it won’t regain that ability for decades, or centuries. Any new pollution now will cause more damage than before. So we must finish the job now.
That will require advocates to resist pollution-control rollbacks proposed by the Trump administration, including attempts to weaken the Clean Power Plan, Cross-State Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, as well as portions of the Clean Air Act that prevent any state’s power plants from causing smog in downwind states, and that require power plant owners who rebuild old power plants to meet tougher new-plant emissions standards. The Adirondack Council and the Environmental Defense Fund are in fact fighting in federal court for Federal EPA compliance with the nation’s clean air act (and the 1990 amendments).
Critical Loads Standard would finish the job
At the same time, the group pointed to the future, expressing hope that the State of New York and then the federal government will adopt a “critical loads” standard, to protect clean water and the environment, public health and the economy. When air pollution exceeds a critical load standard, the amount of pollution that falls on a region makes the environment unlivable for native plants and wildlife. Rather than focusing solely on what is coming out of the smokestack, it would focus on what hits the ground.
It would limit how much pollution is allowed to land in the most sensitive locations in the nation, such as the Adirondacks, the Appalachian Mountains and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. These are all places that have not finished recovering from acid rain, and are now under threat from climate change. Air pollution from coal fired power plants and other sources have not yet been reduced enough.
Advocacy groups including the Adirondack Council and the Environmental Defense Fund want the EPA to finish the job Congress instructed it to do in the Clean Air Act when it called for a Secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standard for sulfur- and nitrogen-based air pollutants (the ones that cause acid rain) when it instructed EPA to set a standard for ambient air quality that went beyond protecting human health and also protects “public welfare,” or the nation’s most vulnerable plants and wildlife, visibility and cultural resources such as historic buildings, monuments and public sculptures.
EPA struggled until 2012 to set such a standard, stating that it lacked the data. It made minor adjustments to “public welfare” standard that year, which studies show still fell short of protecting the most vulnerable locations in the Adirondack Park and beyond.
Uniquely detailed research record for Adirondacks
Because the Adirondacks have been so heavily studied since 1980s, in part because the Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Energy and Research and Development Authority have funded and supported research and monitoring, New York has the data needed to create a program that is truly protective of the most vulnerable places in the entire country. New York also has the ability to set an example for the rest of the nation, even the world, when it comes to saving one of the most fragile and valuable wild places left on Earth.
New York could lead the way, again
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has committed the state to halting coal-fired power production by 2020, while also committing to produce 50 percent of all power through renewable, emissions-free means by 2030.
So, New York is perfectly poised to do what it did in 1984, when it led the nation by creating the first acid rain law. That law set an example for other states, and most importantly, set an example that Congress followed in 1990 and President Bush signed into law, with New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan standing at his shoulder. Democrats and Republicans worked together to get this done. Acid rain hurts everyone it touches. It respects no political affiliations.
The acid rain conference featured nine scientific presentations tracking the immense progress the nation has made over the past 30 years in controlling the air pollution that causes acid rain. Scientists tracked improvements in the air and in the health of the soils, rivers, lakes, forests, fish and wildlife of the Adirondack Park and beyond.
Since 1990, state and federal regulations have caused a 93-percent reduction in the power plant sulfur dioxide pollution falling on the Adirondacks, and an 85-percent reduction in nitrogen oxides. Those are the two main causes of acid rain and smog.
Largest park in contiguous United States
At 9,300 square miles, New York’s state-managed Adirondack Park is the largest American park outside of Alaska. It protects the largest intact temperate, deciduous forest in the world. It is has also suffered the worst acid rain damage of any landscape in America.
In the mid-1980s, a major sampling effort showed that 25 percent of the park’s more than 11,000 lakes and ponds had become so acidic they could no longer support their native aquatic life. Forests were perishing from changes in soil chemistry that released heavy metals such as aluminum, which kills trees and fish, and mercury, which damages nerve cells and organs and causes birth defects.
The Adirondack Council has been a national leader in the fight against acid rain since it was founded in 1975. The success of the federal acid rain program and the knowledge that the reductions and recovery weren’t complete formed the basis for a similar conference in 2014, also in Saratoga Springs. They predicted it was possible to end acid rain damage through the use of a “critical loads” standard and urged adoption of the tool on the state and federal levels.
Since 2014, the Obama administration mostly played defense against legal challenges over key pollution rules, while the current administration has attempted to reverse recent progress. Obama’s EPA won approval of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which contained additional cuts to the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain.
The Obama administration’s attempts to enact the Clean Power Plan were delayed by polluters’ lawsuits in federal courts. The fuel switching and other efficiencies that would be required to comply with carbon rules also would have brought an additional 10 to 12 percent cut in the air pollution that causes acid rain, as a side-benefit.
The Trump administration is proposing changes to both rules, as well as rules governing smog and mercury emissions, which would harm the Adirondack Park. The Adirondack Council and EDF will resist those changes.
Illustrations: Top, Dead Red Spruce on Gothics (courtesy Gary A. Randorf, Adirondack Council; Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina and Dead Fir trees on Mt. Mitchell (courtesy Appalachian Mountain Club); Gifs created from images supplied by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program.