New alarm on acid rain in Adirondacks

Federal report shows nitrogen levels continue to rise in N.Y. waterways

April 09, 2000|By JAMES DAO | JAMES DAO,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- 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 rain. 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 adult fish. 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 Midwest.

'Tangible evidence'

This provides tangible evidence that things have gotten worse in the area of the country where everyone agreed it was already bad, said Rep. John Sweeney, a Republican who represents much of the Adirondacks.

"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

Sweeney and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from Utica, N.Y., and Sen. 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 amendments.

The legislation has been bottled up in committees by opponents, primarily members of Congress from the Midwest. Sweeney and lobbyists for environmental groups said they thought the accounting offices report would generate support for reopening debate on the m

Study called inconclusive

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 reports conclusions, they said it was too early to evaluate the 1990 amendments, parts of which have only recently taken effect.

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 isnt in the data being analyzed.

Even some acid-rain experts who support the reports scientific conclusions questioned whether simply reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants would be sufficient to solve the problems in the Adirondacks, since over a third of the nitrogen in the atmosphere comes from automobiles.

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 wouldnt even see a change from the Moynihan bill. It will probably take a much more comprehensive approach.

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 turns 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 Sweeney and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

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 that they are concerned about acid rain.

Last September, Attorney General Eliot 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 Pataki of New York, a Republican, said he would order power plants in New York to greatly reduce smokestack emissions. And in November, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Republican, said he would follow Spitzers lead in suing 16 coal-burning power plants.

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