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Court Rules Supreme to End Acid Rain

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/images/dead_spruce.JPGApril 29, 2014 was an historic day for the Adirondack Park’s struggle against acid rain.  That’s the day that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for coal-fired power plants in the Midwest to cause acid rain in the Adirondacks.

As the Adirondack Council’s spokesman for the past 23-plus years, this is a dream come true.  We should all be thrilled and proud to see our many years of effort bring such wonderful results.  It was a long, hard road.  Now, we can see the end of it.

Here’s what the ruling means: over the next few years, power plants in 28 states east of the Rocky Mountains will have to cut their smokestack emissions of sulfur- and nitrogen-based air pollution by roughly 70 percent – or, until they stop causing air pollution problems in the states next to them. 

This is the EPA’s plan to carry out the “good neighbor” policy of the Clean Air Act, which says one state should avoid polluting the air of states downwind of it.  The pollution cuts are expected to be deep enough to halt the continuing, day-to-day damage that has punished the soil and water of the Adirondack Park for decades. 

In addition, the EPA and American Lung Association estimate that these cuts – when fully realized - will also save the lives of 34,000 Americans each year.  These are people who would have died of lung disease from breathing unhealthy air.

Here in the Park, it means we will experience much cleaner air than we have for the past several decades, especially at high elevation, where smog and acid fog have harmed people, vegetation and wildlife.

High elevation spruce and fir forests will stop dying on our mountain slopes.  Summit birds such as Bicknell’s Thrush will have a better chance at finding homes and food.

Lower on the slopes, maple saplings should regain their tolerance for shade and begin to reproduce normally again, even among faster-growing vegetation.

In our lakes and rivers, acidic precipitation won’t leach aluminum from rock and soil.  Aluminum destroys fish gills and prevents fish eggs from hatching.

We can now contemplate the day when native trout will return to waters that were recently too acidic to support them.  Heritage strains of brook trout that evolved in Adirondack streams will have a chance to return to their homes, survive, and repopulate their habitat.

Eventually, acidity in our waters will be so low it will no longer be able to convert harmless inorganic mercury (common in rock and soil) into the organic form that contaminates the entire web of life, and with it, our food chain. People will finally be able to catch a fish – of any species - in the Adirondack Park and eat it, without fearing that it is tainted.

Water birds and other fish-eating animals will no longer be poisoned and contaminated by heavy metals. Common loons – the symbol of our wilderness - will no longer be so addled by mercury in their brains that they abandon their young, or forget to feed them. 

Finally, the destruction of our architecture, historic sites, monuments, cemeteries and outdoor sculptures will subside as well.

Looking at all we have learned about the damage acid rain causes, it is really astonishing that the federal government allowed air pollution and acid rain to continue at such a pace for so long.

Initially, we made good progress.  After acid rain was discovered and explained by scientists in the 1970s, the Adirondack Council and other activists persuaded the NYS Legislature to create the nation’s first acid rain control law. New York’s 1985 cap-and-trade pollution control program for sulfur dioxide (and later, nitrogen oxides) would serve as the model for other state laws and for federal action.

U.S. Senator D. Patrick Moynihan, D-NY, and U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-Utica, led the bipartisan charge in Congress that brought about the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.  Those amendments created a national acid rain program that resulted in a 50 percent cut in sulfur dioxide pollution from power plants. 

The program actually achieved these cuts before the final deadline.  That helped a lot.  But it was clear by the mid-1990s that this would not be enough to stop acid rain entirely.  The federal government’s own scientists confirmed this in two consecutive reports of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program.

Gridlock in Congress has prevented further federal legislation.  And despite a slew of lawsuits by Northeast states against individual power plants, it was clear that we needed a concerted effort to clean up all of them at once.

EPA’s first attempt was the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which was struck down by U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In 2011, EPA finalized its replacement, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.  It too was the subject of a lawsuit in 2011, which concluded in 2012 when the same court vacated the rule.  It cited a technical issue involving the method EPA used to determine what level of cuts would be needed in each state.  The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club called upon the Obama administration to appeal that decision.  It did.  We are very glad it did.

The Supreme Court’s decision to reverse the lower court’s ruling gives EPA the authority to carry out the Cross-State Pollution Rule.  We will urge EPA to do just that, as quickly as possible. 

There are a lot of people who had a hand in making all of this possible.  The Adirondack Council extends its thanks to our colleagues at the other Adirondack environmental organizations and the national organizations that have fought to end acid rain such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and the Lung Association. And, we recognize and thank every member of the Adirondack Council team, including our faithful donors, volunteers and all staff, past and present.

Our publications “Beside the Stilled Waters” and “ACID RAIN: A Continuing National Tragedy” helped to explain the problem in plain English to a broad audience. So did our short film on acid rain.

We also had help spreading the message about acid rain from actor Kevin Bacon and his composer brother Michael (The Bacon Brothers Band) as they were kind enough to star in televised public service announcements on acid rain. They joined singer/songwriters Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Merchant, who donated their time to create radio messages on acid rain too.

Governors Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson and Andrew Cuomo have all called on Congress and the EPA to act, while making money available for the scientific research needed to confirm that the pollution cuts were working.  Every attorney general since Robert Abrams has pressed lawsuits seeking to curb pollution from Midwest power plants.

So, the next time you are hiking in the Adirondack Park above 3,000 feet in elevation and breathe clean air, think of this day.  Next time you paddle an Adirondack pond that was once considered dead, and instead see fish swimming and rising to consume insects, think of this decision.  When your grandchildren ask you some years from now “What was acid rain?” you can tell them: “It was a terrible nightmare, but thanks to all of us, working together, it’s a nightmare you won’t have to face.”


Born and raised in Troy, NY, John Sheehan is a graduate of Catholic Central High School and the State University at Albany (1985; BA). Before joining the Council's staff in 1990, John was the managing editor of the Malone Evening Telegram, just north of the Adirondack Park. Prior to that, he worked as 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. Sheehan has overseen the production of two films about the Council (The Adirondack Council, 1992; and, ACID RAIN: A Continuing National Tragedy, 1998), appeared in the independent film Inside the Blue Line (1993) and has produced a series of radio and television public service announcements with entertainers Bonnie Raitt (1994), Natalie Merchant (1997) and brothers/band mates Michael and Kevin Bacon (2009-10).

John is a regular guest lecturer at several New York colleges and universities, including Colgate University, Hobart & William Smith College, Hamilton College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, Siena College, SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse), and SUNY Potsdam. He has also addressed dozens of local organizations including local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and chambers of commerce, scientific societies and community forums.

In his spare time, John helps to train other not-for-profit organizations' staff in media relations, as well as local farmers in how to promote sustainable agriculture. He also volunteers for the Ujima Journey cultural education project in Albany; the Hamilton Hill Arts Council's annual "Juneteenth" celebration in Schenectady; the Albany Falcons Marching Band and Color Guard; and, the Westland Hills ASA softball league in Albany.

John and his wife Deborah live in Albany and are seasonal residents of the Adirondack Park. Their daughter Hannah attends Albany public schools.

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