‘Constant assault’ on air, water protections may not leave lasting damage, but advocates lament lost time on climate
By Ry Rivard
For the past four years, Adirondack environmentalists have been waiting for news to come down from Whiteface Mountain.
Atop the peak in Wilmington is the University at Albany’s atmospheric monitoring station, where, for decades now, researchers have watched changing winds, both literal and figurative.
In the 1980s, they watched pollution blow up from coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley and cause acid rain in the Adirondacks. The rain tore apart the fabric of rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, and cleared some of fish.
In the 2000s, they watched as acid rain gradually decreased because of major amendments to the federal Clean Air Act in 1990.
Recently, they’ve been looking to see if changing winds in Washington would bring back acid rain.
President Donald Trump entered office intent on rolling back regulations on cars and coal. The administration pulled out of an international agreement to curb climate change, scrapped a clean energy plan left by the Obama administration, tried to prop up the ailing coal industry and tried to let car makers avoid new standards that would require new cars to use less gas.
Any increase in coal use caused fears that acid rain might return.
Readings taken earlier in the Trump administration showed a drop in the pH, meaning that the atmosphere was seemingly more acidic.
The Adirondack Council was quick to worry this meant acid rain was in fact back. Other scientists cautioned the numbers might have fluctuated based on precipitation levels. After all, market forces were on the side of cleaner air as coal companies filed for bankruptcy in the face of cheaper natural gas and as clean energy became more reliable and affordable.
Now, newly released data from Whiteface show that acid rain is not making a comeback in the Adirondacks, according to measurements by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program and the University at Albany’s atmospheric research center. The pH rose in 2019 and 2020.
Whiteface researchers also look for other evidence of skyborne acids, the gaseous acid rain precursors, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, known as NOX and SOX.
Both NOX and SOX have been at record lows, said Richard Brandt, the observatory’s science manager.
The numbers are one indicator that the Trump years were not as bad for the Adirondacks as many feared.
“The Trump administration didn’t do as much harm to the park as it tried to do,” said Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan. “Its efforts to roll back pollution controls preceded the COVID pandemic, so the spike in pollution that would could have resulted from it was wiped out when the economy fell silent.”
After four years of concern about the environment, local victories may seem small in the face of concerns about global problems, like a warming climate. After all, it’s warm temperatures that likely contributed to first-of-their-kind algal blooms this fall in Lake George and Mirror Lake.
But a Russian nesting doll of federal, state and regional regulations that protects the Adirondack Park appears to have helped.
One of the major environmental controversies during the Trump Administration was over which waterways would be subject to federal oversight. New York sued to block changes that would have left some waterways unprotected. But, for the most part, none of this affects the Adirondacks, because the Adirondack Park Agency already requires permits to develop in and around most waterways.
Basil Seggos, the head of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said the last four years were a “constant assault” on environmental protections from regulatory rollbacks in Washington and “inexplicable federal inaction on issues including air quality, water quality, and especially climate.”
That prompted states, including New York, to go their own way. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration joined with other states to form a pact to cut emissions to meet the goals of an international climate agreement the Trump Administration removed the country from and the state passed a plan to stop using fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2040.
“There will be some impacts from the federal government’s abdication of responsibilities,” Seggos said in a statement, “but I am confident there are brighter days and many more opportunities to strengthen our country’s commitment to the environment.”
Many of the Trump administration’s more relaxed rules ran into problems in court or could be undone by President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration.
The Adirondack Council, for instance, was involved in a lawsuit that successfully argued the federal government needed to do more to improve air quality in neighboring states.
Nationally, the activist Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Trump administration some 100 times. According the NRDC, 90% of the rulings have been in its favor.
That’s, in some ways, a sign of how ephemeral some of the Trump policies are.
“I don’t think the industry takes these rules seriously because they are so far removed from how the law has been interpreted,” former EPA administrator and current NRDC head Gina McCarthy said in an interview last fall, before Biden picked her as his national climate adviser. “So I don’t think any of them are banking on them for any sort of long-term strategy.”
Others lament lost time. Among them is Judith Enck, the former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in New York under President Barack Obama.
At the same time acid rain numbers declined locally, the global concentration of greenhouse gases continued to rise and NASA just reported 2020 tied for the warmest year on record.
“We’ve lost four invaluable years on the need to drive down carbon emissions and every year of delay means the cuts are going to have to be steeper in the future,” she said.
Pete Lopez, the current EPA regional administrator, doesn’t talk much if at all about climate change, but he does point to other cleanups and reductions in the amount of toxic chemicals released in the region.
Lopez is also proud of a deal he oversaw to help Ticonderoga get into compliance with drinking water standards without having to pay a large penalty.
His region, known as EPA Region 2, is a geographically incongruent one — it includes New York, New Jersey, eight tribal nations, plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Lopez got his start interning for Enck when she was at the nonprofit that’s now known as Environmental Advocates NY. The son of a Puerto Rican farmer, Lopez eventually became a state lawmaker from Schoharie County before he was asked to lead the EPA’s regional office.
Lopez said anyone would find a “rigorous pursuit of environmental quality and environmental compliance” in his office.
He said he took lessons from local politics like the “circuit rider” experts that the Tug Hill Commission sends out to help local governments, and used them to help with hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico.
Though he’s gotten into disagreements with state officials or activists, he tends to brush past differences to talk about how he listens. Seggos, for instance, led a lawsuit against the EPA’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River. Lopez said they’re still friends and “he’ll be my friend forever.”
“I’m just a happy warrior,” Lopez said in an interview this week, just days before a new administration takes over.
This article has been updated to clarify the sources of acid rain-related data from Whiteface Mountain.
This reporting was made possible in part by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.