Bush’s Clean Air Act is a brilliant legacy

George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush never visited the Adirondacks as president, as far as we know, but perhaps no other president had as much of a positive impact on the Adirondack Park, from the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt comes to mind, of course. As New York’s governor, he helped shape the park in its early days, but once he became president, his great conservation work was on a national scale — albeit inspired by his love of the protected Adirondacks.

But the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990, which Bush pushed through Congress, reversed the course of acid rain and thus saved the woods and waters of the Adirondacks, and beyond. As sweeping as that sounds, it’s no exaggeration.

How rare is it that a single law basically solves a massive national problem? Extremely. Yet this amendment worked that well.

By the late 1980s, when Bush was elected president, more than a quarter of the lakes and ponds in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park had become too acidic to support fish. We were close to losing brook trout. Forests were dying because the soil was also too acidic.

Now, pH levels have almost come back to normal. Once-dead ponds teem with life. A few years ago, a state-record brook trout was caught in a pond that had been dead in the 1980s, due to acid rain.

The evidence is not just anecdotal, either; the scientific record on this is super-solid because the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation has been testing Adirondack waters for this purpose since 1992, and because SUNY Albany’s Atmospheric Science Research Center on Whiteface Mountain has been testing pH levels of cloud precipitation since at least 1994.

Acid rain (or snow) happens when nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, emitted in large quantities by plants that burn coal and oil, react in the air to seed clouds with acidic chemicals. Prevailing winds blow this pollution from the Midwest and Ohio River valley our way, toward the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada.

The Adirondack woods and waters were hit harder than most places because clouds often unload their precipitation when they hit the Adirondack Mountains. Also, the Adirondacks have relatively shallow bedrock, concentrating the acid close to the surface.

We know now, beyond a reasonable doubt, that acid rain is a result of industrial pollution, but that was fiercely controversial back in the ’80s, especially in Bush’s Republican Party. His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, did not take action on the issue, and industry groups put out their own studies claiming acid rain was not manmade and/or not harmful.

Bush didn’t buy that. William K. Reilly, who was EPA administrator for Bush’s whole four-year term, recently told the Washington Post about how he met Bush shortly after his 1988 election and urged him to help update the Clean Air Act to address acid rain.

“I’ll do it,” Bush said, according to Reilly, who added that Bush “promised to be the ‘environmental president'” and “was as good as his word.” Two years later, he was signing the update into law.

Another person who nudged Bush in this direction was Canada’s prime minister at the time, Brian Mulroney. Canada, too, was hit hard by acid rain, which often originated in the U.S., and it was important to Bush to keep relations strong with that country and his friend Mulroney, according to David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who’s now staff writer for The Atlantic.

Bush, being a Republican, made sure the amendment used a market-based cap-and-trade approach which was largely untested at the time, but which proved to be very effective.

“Over the next two decades, U.S. emissions of sulfur dioxide would tumble by 67 percent,” Frum writes.

We’re not giving Bush all the credit. Laws are primarily the domain of Congress, and many members there contributed. Frum says Senate Democrats opened the door to the amendment by choosing as their majority leader George Mitchell of Maine, a state also hit hard by acid rain, to succeed Sen. Robert Byrd of the coal-county state of West Virginia.

This landmark legislation didn’t just fix acid rain; it also effectively kept the hole in the Earth’s ozone layer from expanding, and in fact prompted it to shrink.

The act has barely been updated in the last 28 years and needs bolstering to keep polluters from circumventing it, but no Congress and president since then have had enough sense of shared responsibility to do so. President Barack Obama’s administration tried to implement such updates on its own, but Congress and current President Donald Trump have proven to be obstacles.

Yet the 1990 act still stands very strong. Trump’s EPA has tried ignoring and evading aspects of it, but keeps losing in court.

This amazing environmental act has proven to be a monumental legacy for the Adirondacks and, in fact, the planet. President George H.W. Bush was the driving force behind it. There are many other reasons to think of him fondly as we mourn him this week, but that one should not be forgotten.