The air pollution that causes acid rain has been falling on some areas of the United States for nearly a century. But the damage acid rain causes can take a long time to develop. In many of the most heavily damaged regions - such as the forests of New England - scientists have been documenting ecological damage since the 1970's. Now, other regions are discovering that their health and environment are suffering too.
In 1990, Congress amended the Clear Air Act and instructed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create the nation's first acid rain control program. In 1992, the Bush Administration boasted that the new program would "end acidity in Adirondack lakes and streams." But many recognize right away that the program would be inadequate to stop the destruction in the Adirondack Park and the nation's other sensitive ecosystems.
In 1993, the NYS Dept. Of Environmental Conservation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Adirondack Council sued the EPA over the new program. In a partial settlement of the suit, the EPA agreed to complete a 1996 report to Congress on whether the new program would have the desired effect. The report confirmed our fears.
The EPA noted that the current federal acid rain program could only slow the rate of damage done to the Adirondack Park. More lakes would die. Meanwhile, acid rain and the air pollution that causes it are damaging other areas of the nation at an alarming rate. are being devastated. Spruce forests are dying, streams are losing their fish. Insect infestations in forests threaten to wipe out entire species. In New England, studies by acid rain research scientist Dr. Gene Likens showed that the hardwood forest of New Hampshire's Hubbard Brook area has stopped growing.
Sugar maples are at a particular risk - bad news indeed for furniture and syrup makers. Up north, the Canadian government estimates that by 2010, even with full implementation of the Canadian and American acid rain programs, an area of France and Britain in southern Canada will continue to receive harmful levels of acid rain. As many as 95,000 lakes will remain damaged, they stated in 1997.
Out west, in the Rocky Mountains are finding that power plant emissions are saturating high-elevation watersheds in Colorado with acid-causing nitrogen. Evergreen forests are losing their needles and tree health is declining throughout the forest range. Acid rain damage is not limited to forests and aquatic ecosystems. In Pennsylvania, the monuments at the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg are deteriorating far more quickly then similar structures in places not affected by acid rain. Throughout the Northeast, stone, brick and block buildings, as well as automobile finishes, show signs of more extensive and rapid weathering than counterparts in other regions of the country.
In the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound, nitrogen-based pollution is overloading the water with nutrients. This contributes to the overabundance of algae, which when they die and decay, deplete the water of precious oxygen needed by all aquatic animals. The condition is known as hypoxia.
Closer to our homes, acidity in water supplies is leaching poisonous metals such as lead into the drinking water. Copper is killing the beneficial bacteria that make septic systems function. Airborne particles of sulfur - the chief component of acid rain - also cause and worsen lung diseases.
The new fish species that can survive in acidic waters are accumulating mercury in their body tissue. Now, mammals and birds that live on those fish are showing signs of mercury contamination. More than 500 lakes and ponds (out of 2,800) in the Adirondack Park are already too acidic to support the plants and aquatic wildlife that once existed in them . Each spring, an entire winter's acidic snowpack melt into the Park's waters,jolting them with a huge jump in acidity known as "acid shock." It could not happen at a worse time. Many of the Park's plants, animals and insects are at their most vulnerable at the beginning of the growing season.
Click Here to Read the Council's Publication
"Acid Rain: A Continuing National Tragedy"
Red spruce forests on the western-facing slopes of the Park's High Peaks region are stunted and dying at a rapid pace. Those forests receive extremely high levels of polluted precipitation that blows in from the coal-fired smokestacks of the Ohio Valley and beyond.
Day after day, even when it doesn't even rain or snow, the pollution hangs in acid clouds that shroud the mountains in a caustic fog. Adding insult to a long list of injuries, Canadian studies show that the larvae of black flies - the bane of spring outdoor activities in the Northeast and southern Canada - seem to thrive in acidic waters. Consequently, their populations are exploding as pollution changes the chemistry of the waters from which they hatch.
The Adirondack Park is suffering the worst damage in the nation from acid rain. And because nearly all of the utility plant pollution that causes acid rain in the Adirondacks comes from outside the state, New Yorkers alone can do little to prevent the onslaught.
The good news is that the current acid rain program is costing utility companies far less than they predicted when Congress was contemplating the Clear Air Act Amendments of 1990. As a result, the total cost of finishing the job Congress intended to do in 1990 would still be less than original estimates.
What You Can Do to Help Stop Acid Rain
For a donation of $25, you can own an attractive Clean Air Certificate. When you do, the Adirondack Council will permanently retire one ton of acid rain causing pollution. That means no power company will ever get its hands on it and one ton of acid rain causing pollution will never be released into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of acid rain that can fall in the Adirondacks. The recipient will receive a Clean Air Certificate that is suitable for framing and can be made out in the name of whomever you wish.