Acid rain called growing menace

New York faulted on spending, political resolve to tackle issue

September 10, 2000|By DINA CAPPIELLO | DINA CAPPIELLO,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - For years, the invisible menace of acid rain has been slowly destroying life in the once-pristine lakes of the Adirondack Park.

Researchers say 500 of the roughly 2,800 lakes scattered throughout the New York's 6-million-acre park show few signs of animal or plant life. And unless conditions change - mainly by diminishing air pollution generated by power plants hundreds of miles south and west of the mountains - half of the Adirondack lakes could be dead 40 years from now.

"The acid rain problem is worse in the Adirondacks than any other place in the country," said Charles Driscoll, a professor of environmental engineering at Syracuse University, who has studied acid rain throughout the Northeast since the 1970s.

The outlook is not bright.

Recovery process slow

"At current emission levels the recovery process will be very Slow. There will be minimal improvement to no improvement in water quality," said Greg Lawrence, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

But decades after acid rain was first identified by scientists, the state has cut funding to measure the destructiveness of acid rain. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), charged with carrying out the policies of Gov. George Pataki -- a Republican who boasts of his record on the environment - lacks a coordinated strategy to deal with the issue.

New York has taken major strides to clean up the air in the last few years - fighting in court, in the state Legislature and in Congress to force plants to reduce pollutants.

But as the state is gearing up to take on polluting industries, critics say New York lacks the evidence it needs to win political battles because the state does not spend enough to study lake water quality. Only $550,000 has been spent over the last three years.

That wasn't always so. In the mid-1980s, the state and the utility industry joined to create the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corp., which analyzed the impact of acid rain on 1,469 Adirondack lakes. The definitive alarmed many who had believed the Adirondacks were immune to pollution. It found that almost one-fourth of the lakes were critically acidified.

But the study was only a snap-shot. Since then, the state has not funded a comprehensive lake study in the Adirondacks, and the state environmental agency has cut both money and staff for long-term water-quality monitoring. Federal funding has also been reduced.

"If it was up to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, we would not be involved in any monitoring work," said James Sutherland, a research scientist with the DEC's Division of Water, who is studying Adirondack lakes with $1.4 million in aid from the federal government. 'The minuscule amount of funding available statewide for analysis would give anyone on the outside the impression that the agency has no interest in water quality monitoring in lakes and ponds."

Carl Johnson, deputy commissioner of the DEC's Air and Waste Management Division, said the 52 lakes the agency has focused on since 1992 are enough to gather the information needed on acid rain.

'What we already know'

"Sampling more lakes is only going to tell us more of what we already know," he said.

Scientists have unearthed a great deal about acid rain's causes and effects since it was first described in a scientific journal in 1972. Over time, lakes fill with millions of tiny raindrops loaded with acid generated when air pollution and water mix in clouds.

The small creatures that spend their lives afloat in the water or submerged in the mud die first, unable to withstand the acidic conditions. Then death spreads upward to the predators of the lake, the fish.

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