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Acid rain explained

The Adirondacks have seen less acid rain and snow since the start of the Acid Rain Program in 1995, both in data and physical rejuvenation of waters.

How it happens

Acid rain in the Adirondacks is caused by pollution coming from many states south and west of New York.

When coal are burned often to produce electricity, it puts off sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide as by-products. These chemicals are carried downwind in clouds, and when they hit the Adirondack mountains, they comes down in precipitation.

The acidic rain or snow breaks down chemical bonds, releasing heavy metals such as aluminum from rocks which enter the soil and waterways. Aluminum poisons trees to the point that their roots can’t absorb water and breaks down fish gills to the point that the fish suffocate.

Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan said when the pH level of a water body is in the 6.5 to 7 range, it can support a full range of wildlife. However, when it drops down to 4 or 5, meaning more acidic, most species can’t survive.

“Around 5.0 we tend to see that the lake doesn’t really function as a lake anymore,” Sheehan said.

Another way to measure the quality of the water is viewing how it conducts electricity. Clean water won’t conduct electricity, but once it has chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen, both released from smokestacks and carried downwind, then it can conduct electricity. The conductivity of the water has also decreased along with the acidity.

Improvements and setbacks

The pollution that was rampant in the mid- and late-1900s caused lasting damage to the lakes, rivers and ponds of the Adirondacks.

Since 1995, however, there has been a 90% decrease in the sulfur dioxide pollution falling inside the Blue Line, according to data measured as part of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, which is run from the Whiteface Mountain Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and operated by the University at Albany.

Since the 1980s the clouds over Whiteface have become 10 times less acidic. This is in part due to the “good neighbor” policy, which has its latest iteration in the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that started in 2015.

However, the current EPA has not been enforcing that rule. In the summer, when smog is created, coal plants are supposed to turn on their electrostatic precipitators, which filter out sulfur dioxide. However, since 2017 many plants have not, and have not faced any consequences from the EPA for breaking the rule.

Sheehan said that not turning on the devices can make running the plants slightly cheaper to run.

“Yes, but by pennies a day,” he said.

He added that the technology was already installed in the 1960s and that it runs on the electricity produced in those very power plants.

Despite the improvements, the Adirondack Council has issued a press release warning that acid rain could return to the area. The Enterprise will have an article on that tomorrow.