We Cannot Forget About Acid Rain

tags: Acid Rain, Adirondacks, Adirondack Park

Sam Mastrianni is an intern at HNN and a life-long resident of the Adirondacks. 

In the 1960s, ecologists started to record the detrimental effects of acid rain. While acid rain damaged many areas in America, the Adirondack Park (located in upstate New York) endured the worst consequences of any area in the nation.  


Acid Rain is created when nitrogen oxides (NO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) mix and combine with water to create sulfuric and nitric acids. These acids can be carried through the air for hundreds of miles and return to the earth in a number of ways, including rain and snow. Numerous things create these acids but burning coal is one of the biggest creators of acid rain. When coal became the primary fuel used to generate electricity in America in 1961, acid rain became a significant problem. The Adirondacks and other down-wind areas suffered from the consequences of acid rain even though very little coal was burnt there. This was an alarming indication that pollution like acid rain was not just a local issue, but a national threat.  


Acid Rain destroys forests, harms wildlife, degrades buildings, pollutes water supplies, creates caustic fog, and threatens the lives of humans. If this list is not bad enough, acid rain also increases the number of black flies—arguably the peskiest of all pests. If anything is certain, it is that nobody wins with acid rain (except the black flies, of course). Acid Rain is a dangerous problem and history can teach us an important lesson about it that we cannot afford to ignore.


In the Adirondacks alone, the effects of acid rain were astounding. During the 1980s acid rain scare, a third of the red spruce trees died and over a fourth of the lakes were so acidic that they could not support fish. For perspective, the Adirondack park is six million acres large, with 2,800 lakes and millions of trees. Acid rain not only destroyed many of these lakes and trees but it endangered livelihoods as well. Fisherman during the time were so desperate to save the fish population that they would dump truck beds full of lime into the lakes to try and counter the acidity (to no avail). The beautiful landscape of the Adirondacks (which draws tourists from all over the world) was degraded and fog obscured the unique Adirondack views. The beautiful park was being destroyed by coal burning hundreds of miles away.


After the terrible consequences of acid rain were recognized, legislation and regulations were enacted to help save the park. In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act to help control acid rain. The effectiveness of this law is debated but it was an important start. As the 1990s progressed, more lawsuits and settlements were brought against polluters (through the work of New York Attorneys General Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo, and Eric Schneiderman) which improved the conditions of the Adirondacks. These lawsuits, paired with the Clean Air Interstate Act and the eventual Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, provided desperately needed help to the Adirondacks. After these actions were taken, it took years for fish to return and trees to recover. Yet these actions turned a bad situation into a true environmental success story.


While major improvements have occurred in the last few decades, the Adirondacks are still not safe from acid rain. In 2018, President Trump repealed the Clean Power Plan. This plan, which was passed during President Obama’s presidency, was designed to further reduce emissions and coal burning. This plan would continue to protect the Adirondacks from the harmful effects of acid rain. In addition to the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, other layers of critical protection have been removed as President Trump has made other environmental deregulations as well. These actions threaten us with the same dangers present during the 1970s.


We cannot afford to ignore the history of acid rain. President Trump’s deregulations and repeals could harm many areas of the country, including places like the Adirondacks. Too much is at risk (as history has shown us) to allow acid rain to reoccur. We must remember the dreadful history of the Adirondacks when deciding the environmental future of our nation.

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