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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Adirondacks and Acid Rain

Air Date: Week of

Brenda Tremblay reports on the effects of acid rain in the Adirondacks. The Clean Air Act of 1990 was supposed to reduce the amount of emissions causing acid rain. But the pollution continues. Currently, about five hundred of the region’s 2,800 lakes are uninhabitable for fish. A new ruling that will reduce emissions from power plants in the Midwest, may slow down the damage.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coal-fired power plants in the Midwestern U.S. will soon be cutting their emissions, thanks to a recent federal court ruling. The new federal limits on nitrogen oxides are expected to reduce smog in northeastern cities and make the air safer to breathe. There are also projected benefits for the countryside. Nitrogen oxides in the air are among the components of acid rain, which had been injuring plants, lakes, and streams throughout the Northeast for years. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI in Rochester has this report from New York's Adirondack Mountains.

(Bird song, ambient voices)

TREMBLAY: The summer vacation season is in full swing on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. At the Covewood Lodge, staff members in matching green t-shirts are running around, getting ready to host a wedding. The lodge's owner, Major Bowes, watches the bustle at the front desk with a satisfied smile. He says he's loved life in the Adirondacks ever since he moved here 50 years ago.

BOWES: We have a few bugs in the spring, a little cold in the winter. But it's just terrific. And you don't have to walk far where you can be back 10,000 years, it looks just the same.

TREMBLAY: But the Adirondacks aren't the same. People used to come to Big Moose Lake to fish. Now they go elsewhere because this lake is too acidic for most fish to survive. Even before the fish left, Major Bowes says, changes in the Adirondacks started to affect his own family, who drinks treated spring water from the surrounding mountains.

BOWES: Our girls were not well when they were growing up. And we couldn't find out what was the matter with them. And even the Saranac Lake Hospital, they couldn't find. We never did find out. But in the course of searching, we found that our water had five times the recommended lead and three times the recommended copper in it. And it was coming because the acid was eating the pipes. We were literally drinking our pipes.

TREMBLAY: So Major Bowes started adding limestone to his water supply. He installed a sand filter. And over time his daughters got better. By that time, people had stopped fishing Big Moose Lake, even though it's one of the largest lakes in the region. Other Adirondack lakes were losing fish, too, and scientists are pretty sure they know why.

(A canoe is set up)

KRETSER: Okay, I'll set things up here a minute.

TREMBLAY: Fifty miles north, at the foot of White Face Mountain, Walter Kretser and his assistants climb into a canoe on the bank of Owen Pond. They drop a plastic tube into the water, seal it, and draw up a sample to pour into a flask.


KRETSER: Okay. We analyze each of these samples for 20 different parameters. And what this is, is an effort to look at trends as a result of the Clean Air Act of 1990.

TREMBLAY: For seven years Walter Kretser and his team have studied water samples from 52 different Adirondack lakes. Some of the lakes are so remote they have to fly in a helicopter to reach them. The lakes and mountains of the Adirondacks make up the largest state park in the continental United States. But it's the park's location that interests scientists like Mr. Kretser. The Adirondack Mountains can rise as high as 5,000 feet, and they are exposed to winds from the southwest. So everything that's put into the atmosphere from the Midwest to the Great Lakes makes its way to this wilderness.

KRETZER: So, you know, the atmosphere is coming down like a river toward us, and we have this big dam, and the dam is the Adirondacks. And everything splashes on top of the Adirondacks.

(Water splashes)

TREMBLAY: "Everything" includes acid rain, formed by nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxides, which are spewed into the air by coal-burning plants, converted to acids in the atmosphere, and carried here in the clouds. The good news is that acid rain caused by sulfur dioxide emissions has decreased in the last seven years. The bad news is that acid rain caused by nitrogen oxide has not decreased. Instead, it has increased by two percent. Already, Walter Kretser says, 750 of the 3,000 lakes in the Adirondacks are so acidified that life in and around the lake is affected. The fish are disappearing, the trees are rotting. Even birds and animals, such as eagles, otters, and loons are being affected as the situation gets worse.

KRETSER: So, theoretically, if we continue exactly the way we're doing now, we could in fact have as many as 40 percent of our lakes affected in the next 50 years.

TREMBLAY: That's why, Mr. Kretser says, the latest ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington is such good news for the Adirondacks. The court gave the Environmental Protection Agency permission to force 19 states to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxide. The reductions will begin in the year 2003. Mr. Kretser says he expects to detect improvements almost right away.

KRETSER: Some of the lakes that are in the middle, that are marginally acidified now, could in fact be in good shape in just a very short time, and could support fish populations.

TREMBLAY: But what's good news for the health of the Adirondacks isn't necessarily good news for Midwestern industries. Over the next few years, meeting the new standards will cost industries billions of dollars. Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown represents constituents in northern Ohio, where the auto and steel industries have already had to comply with stricter, more expensive emissions controls.

BROWN: The industries in northeast Ohio will tell you that they have had difficulty complying with clean air laws. But they also have done it.

TREMBLAY: And grumbled about it, Congressman Brown adds. He says he supports most bills that benefit public health and the environment. But he admits that doesn't please everyone in his district.

BROWN: It's elicited phone calls from some industrials in my area that aren't particularly happy. And we talk about it, and they end up complying and doing what they're supposed to do.

MARDOCK: This is an important first step, but it's certainly not the end of the road. It's kind of the beginning of the journey.

TREMBLAY: Jane Mardock is the director of the Clean Air Network, an alliance of organizations that advocates for better air quality. Ms. Mardock says she's pleased by the new ruling. But, she says, the plan has one serious weakness.

MARDOCK: This rule is focused on reducing emissions during the five summer-time months, which is April through October. And the worst time for acid rain is really in the spring, when they have build-up of emissions between October and April, the other seven months of the year.

TREMBLAY: Because acid rain falls all year round, Ms. Mardock says, the EPA should be able to enforce reductions of emissions 12 months of the year. But in this recent ruling, the agency's focus is ozone and the human health problems it causes, not acid rain. Nonetheless, Jane Mardock says she's not complaining. Any emissions reduction at all will benefit the Adirondacks.

MARDOCK: In the abstract, yes, it will help. But time will tell how much it will help, actually.

TREMBLAY: Back at Covewood Lodge in the Adirondacks, Major Bowes says he's very happy about the news from Washington.

BOWES: This is something that affects everybody, no matter who you are. And so, we should all be interested in it.

(People milling)

TREMBLAY: Mr. Bowes has welcomed the first wedding guests to his lodge on Big Moose Lake. While they're checking in, he steps out onto the porch and points to yellow, hazy clouds hanging over the mountains across the lake.

BOWES: It's like living downwind of a volcano, 24 hours a day. When the wind's blowing out of the southwest, or even out of the west, you don't have to be a genius to see where the acid rain is coming from, because you can see the ash in the atmosphere.

TREMBLAY: But Mr. Bowes is hopeful that in a few years he'll be able to stand on his porch and see fluffy white clouds. And maybe even a few fish jumping out of Big Moose Lake. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Big Moose, New York.



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