Acid rain said to decline in New York

Scientists wary of results from study of Adirondack lakes

February 17, 2002|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

TROY, N.Y. - A study of 30 Adirondack lakes by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has revealed that some lakes within the 6,000,000-acre park are responding to a decade of cuts in the air pollution that causes acid rain.

Researchers found that pH - the concentration of acid in water - improved from 1994 to 2000 in 18 of 30 lakes that had been most heavily affected by acid rain. The reduction in acid levels caused increases in the diversity of microscopic plants and other wildlife.

Scientists cautious

But the scientists cautioned that the numbers don't mean the entire park is on the road to recovery.

"The facts are that 18 out of the 30 lakes' acidity has decreased," said Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, executive director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, a research arm of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute based in Bolton Landing.

"There are some signs of recovery in some of the lakes. They are not all going to respond."

Environmentalists and other scientists studying the impact of acid rain questioned the data. They noted that the study appeared to contradict other research showing that half the lakes in the park will be unable to support plant or animal life without deeper cuts in the pollutants emitted by power plants hundreds of miles west.

From Midwestern plants' smokestacks, pollutants are carried east on prevailing winds, then mix with water vapor in clouds to generate acid rain over the Adirondack Mountains.

Among the criticisms were the lack of long-term measurements as a basis for comparison, and the effects of weather, such as dry summers and spring snow melt, which can influence how much acid reaches a lake in a particular year.

500 lakes dead

An estimated 500 of the roughly 2,800 lakes in the park are already dead.

"Their conclusions are diametrically opposed" to the other research, said Neil Woodworth, lead counsel for the Adirondack Mountain Club. "Right now, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are way high enough to acidify lakes."

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are the pollutants that form acid when they mix with clouds.

The institute recently received $2.4 million from the federal government to continue its study of 30 lakes through 2007.

Some of the 30 lakes, which are all in Hamilton and Herkimer counties, have shown no improvement in the last eight years of the study despite the reductions in air pollution that were phased in after 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

These water bodies will require deeper cuts in air pollution, the RPI scientists said.

"In order for a wider sample of lakes to recover, we need to reduce emissions," said Jim Sutherland, a research scientist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation who works on the study. Sutherland said the study differed from the other research because it factored in biology.

"Populations can respond to small changes in chemistry," he said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation, which has tracked 52 lakes in the Adirondack Park since 1984, characterized the improvements as barely measurable.

"In the Adirondacks, we are beginning to see slight chemical improvements in a few lakes, but those changes are far from creating the biological improvements needed to restore these lakes to full health," agency spokeswoman Jennifer Post said. "We will continue to push for deeper cuts in the emissions that cause acid rain."

Research into the environmental effects of pollution on the vast park will be critical to advancing legislation currently being weighed in Washington.

The legislation has been stalled by resistance from Midwestern legislators who represent states with power plants that contribute to the problem.

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