March 27, 2000
Acid Rain Law Found to Fail in Adirondacks
Join a Discussion on The Environment
By JAMES DAO
ASHINGTON, March 26 -- A
landmark air pollution law enacted a
decade ago to reduce acid rain has
failed to slow the acidification of
lakes and streams in the Adirondacks, many of which are rapidly
losing the ability to sustain life, according to a new federal report.
The study by the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan research
agency for Congress, raises sharp
questions about the effectiveness of
the Clean Air Act amendments of
1990, which set tough restrictions on
smokestack emissions of sulfur and
nitrogen, the two components of acid
The report shows that while sulfur
levels have declined substantially in
a vast majority of the Adirondacks
waterways, nitrogen levels have continued to rise in nearly half of them.
In water, nitrogen turns to nitric
acid, which can damage fish larvae
and create conditions that poison
"Increases in these lakes' acidity
raise questions about their prospects
for recovering under the current program," the report concludes.
New York officials and environmental groups seized on the report
as clear evidence that the federal
government urgently needs to set
even stricter standards for nitrogen
emissions, particularly from upwind
coal-burning power plants in the
"This provides tangible evidence
that things have gotten worse in the
area of the country where everyone
agreed it was already bad," said
Representative John E. Sweeney, a
Republican who represents much of
"New York has already taken the
lead in reducing power plant emissions," he said. "This is a federal
issue. There have to be new nationwide standards."
Mr. Sweeney, Representative
Sherwood L. Boehlert, a Republican
from Utica, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan are the lead sponsors
of legislation that would require utility companies to reduce nitrogen
emissions by 50 percent more than
the levels required under the 1990
The legislation has been bottled up
in committees by opponents, primarily members of Congress from the
Midwest. Mr. Sweeney and lobbyists
for environmental groups said they
thought the accounting office's report would generate support for reopening debate on the measure,
though they remained pessimistic
about its chances of passage this
But officials representing Midwestern utility companies said the
new study was not conclusive enough
to warrant additional action by Congress. While not disputing the science underlying the report's conclusions, they said it was too early to
evaluate the 1990 amendments, parts
of which have only recently taken
"Nitrogen oxide reductions just
started in 1996 and then were increased in 2000," said John Kinsman,
manager for atmospheric science at
the Edison Electric Institute, an association of shareholder-owned electric utilities. "There will be a lot less
nitrogen oxide emitted from utilities
now than there was last year. And
that certainly isn't in the data being
Even some acid rain experts who
support the report's scientific conclusions questioned whether simply
reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants would be sufficient
to solve the problems in the Adirondacks, since more than a third of the
nitrogen in the atmosphere comes
"There is an expectation that if
you reduce nitrogen emissions from
utilities, the acid rain problem in the
Adirondacks will get better," said
Charles T. Driscoll, a professor of
civil and environmental engineering
at Syracuse University. "And that is
probably an unrealistic expectation.
You probably wouldn't even see a
change from the Moynihan bill. It
will probably take a much more
Acid precipitation occurs when
sulfur or nitrogen borne on the prevailing winds mixes with atmospheric moisture to form sulfuric or
nitric acid, falling earthward as acid
rain, snow or fog. Dry nitrogen and
sulfur pollution also turn to acid
when deposited in waterways or
mixed with moisture in the soil.
The General Accounting Office
study, which will be released to the
public on Monday, was requested by
Mr. Sweeney and Senator Patrick J.
Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.
The study is being released at a
time when a bipartisan parade of
officials from New York and other
Northeastern states have been
scrambling to show they are concerned about acid rain.
Last September, Attorney General
Eliot L. Spitzer of New York, a Democrat, announced that he planned to
sue 17 power plants, mainly in the
Midwest and the Virginias, to force
them to reduce emissions that cause
smog and acid rain.
A month later, Gov. George E.
Pataki of New York, a Republican,
said he would order power plants in
New York to reduce smokestack
emissions drastically. And in November, Attorney General Richard
Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat, said he would follow Mr.
Spitzer's lead in suing 16 coal-burning power plants.
The accounting office's report
does not break new scientific ground,
but instead brings together the findings of many recent scientific studies
in a highly readable form. It also
offers gloomier predictions than
many other recent scientific surveys, suggesting that the situation in
the Adirondacks seems to be deteriorating faster than scientists with the
federal Environmental Protection
Agency had thought.
"It basically says that more lakes
are dying faster," said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack
Council, a nonprofit environmental
group. "Their worst-case scenario
Numerous studies have determined that high acidity has been
killing off fish in Adirondack waterways for many years.
According to the report, the nitrogen deposited in the Adirondacks
during the 1990's remained relatively stable. But in that same period, the
level of nitrogen rose in 48 percent of
the 52 Adirondack lakes that are
routinely tested for acid levels by the
Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation, a nonprofit group.
Nitrogen levels declined in only a
quarter of the lakes, and remained
level in the rest. By comparison, sulfur levels declined in 92 percent of
the same lakes.
The report offers two reasons why
nitrogen levels have continued to rise
in the waterways.
First, forests can absorb some nitrogen, which is a nutrient for trees
and other plants. But older forests,
like those in the Adirondacks, tend to
absorb less, allowing nitrogen in the
soil to leach into nearby ponds, lakes
Second, soils often contain elements that neutralize acid precipitation. But the Adirondacks have been
inundated by acid rain for so long
that those neutralizing elements
have been depleted in many places,
the report concludes.
Like wet sponges that can no longer soak up water, parts of the Adirondacks are becoming saturated with
nitrogen and thus incapable of buffering waterways from acid precipitation, the report suggests.
"Lakes in the Adirondack Mountains are taking longer to recover
than lakes located elsewhere and are
likely to recover less or not recover,
without further reductions of acid
deposition," the report says.
Several experts on acid rain said
they agreed with the report's overall
conclusions about the potentially
devastating impact of rising nitrogen
levels in the region's waterways. But
they raised questions about the
causes of those rising levels and the
ways to reduce it.
Gary Lovett, a plant ecologist with
the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a
private nonprofit research organization in Millbrook, N.Y., said changes
in climate or vegetation growth
could also affect nitrogen levels. A
drought one year, for instance, could
reduce nitrogen absorption years later, he said.
Moreover, while he supports reducing nitrogen emissions from industrial smokestacks, he said the
problem could not be solved until
something was also done about the
nitrogen in automobile exhaust.
"The effort has been focused on
smokestacks because it is easier to
control," Mr. Lovett said. "But we
can't point our finger entirely at the
Midwest when we are driving around
in our cars here in the East."