In the nearly four decades that I have done conservation advocacy for ADK (Adirondack Mountain Club), no single issue has occupied more of my efforts than the battle to reduce acid deposition in the Adirondacks. In 1985, ADK worked hard to pass New York’s pioneering State Acid Rain Control Act (SADCA) which committed the state and private industry to begin the reduction of sulfates and nitrates that comprise acid deposition. Over the years, ADK lobbied for amendments to the federal Clean Air Act to mandate the installation of flue gas scrubbers, electrostatic precipitators, baghouses and other advanced control technology to remove sulfates, nitrates, and particulate matter from the smoke stacks of large coal-fired generating plants. In the years 2007 and 2008, ADK joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the State of New York to successfully oppose efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of President Bush 43 to roll back acid deposition control legislation that was steadily reducing the amounts of acid sulfates and nitrates. We also sued in the federal courts to defend EPA regulations that required the removal of elemental mercury from the smoke stacks of those coal fired plants. Elemental mercury is converted into the deadly neurotoxin methyl mercury in New York’s lakes. Several of these legal cases took ADK to the United State Supreme Court. Acid deposition leaches aluminum from the soils which is toxic to both trees and aquatic life, especially brook trout.
As I evaluate the fight against acid deposition in 2018, it is clear that this battle is one of the great environmental success stories. Since the height of the battle in 1990, federal Clean Air Act laws have resulted in a 93 percent reduction in coal fired power plant sulfate deposition falling in the Adirondacks and an 85 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides. Contrast this with the results of a major study in the mid 1980’s that showed that 25 to 30 percent of the Adirondack lakes were so acidic they could no longer support aquatic life. High altitude forests were seeing serious die back of conifers from acid leaching of aluminum. Today, only 7 percent of Adirondack lakes and ponds have acid levels too toxic for aquatic life. However, not all the news is good. Many decades of acid neutralization by calcium compounds in the calcium poor Adirondack soils has resulted in a seriously low level of calcium to neutralize acid deposition in the future. It takes hundreds of years of weathering of Adirondack soils to replace that calcium. We are also fighting attempts by the Trump administration to roll back key elements of the Clean Air Act acid deposition control laws, in an fruitless effort to try and revive the coal fired power generation industry. ADK must join the State of New York, other Adirondack advocacy groups like the Adirondack Council to defeat the Affordable Clean Energy Act and help enact the Clean Power Plan that not only keeps acid deposition from returning to the old levels, but makes a substantial contribution to reducing heat trapping emissions of carbon dioxide from the same power plants. We will need your help to protect our acid rain reductions, lake recovery and address global warming.
Neil F. Woodworth
Executive Director and Counsel
For more articles like this pick up your January-February edition of the Adirondac available January 1. Members can view the magazine in their Members Area on the website. Non-members can purchase the magazine in our online shop.