Waters get safer for fish, but some won’t soon recover without continued aid
By Ry Rivard
For several months, 760 bags of pulverized limestone sat waiting in the woods with a sheet of paper stuck to a nearby tree that said:
“DO NOT DISTURB”
In late February, a group of state workers and college students came to the pile of 50-pound bags, now frozen together and covered by still-falling snow.
They pulled off green tarps and pried the bags apart, loaded the bags into plastic sleds and hauled them down a small hill and out across Benz Pond, a 25-acre fishing spot in the northwestern Adirondacks.
Then, with pocket knives and box cutters, they gutted bag after bag until they’d dumped 19 tons of lime onto the frozen pond.
All this because, for over a century, Americans burned coal to make power, steel and cement.
Smoke from the coal fire drifted into the clouds, across the country, up through the state of New York, then fell back down as acid rain.
The acid tore apart the fabric of rivers, streams, and lakes and ponds—including Benz Pond.
Some lakes lined by limestone were naturally protected, since the stone has calcium that can neutralize acid. In the Adirondacks, where the soil is thin, there isn’t such protection. Researchers figured out they could fake it until they could make acid rain go away. Starting in 1959, they began dumping limestone into lakes.
So they were at it again—a handful of staffers from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and about a dozen students from Paul Smith’s College—spreading lime dust across the top of a frozen lake during a storm to combat more than a century of industrialization.
Three decades of environmental laws have curbed emissions of the skyborne acids, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, known as NOX and SOX.
Waters are now getting better, though widespread monitoring tends to be infrequent. The whole picture is hard to make out from stream to stream and lake to lake.
Of the Adirondack lakes that the state watches closely, the results are promising but not perfect. Generally, there’s less NOX and SOX, as would be expected since coal-fired power plants have had to install scrubbers, and regulations have required diesel fuel to have less sulfur.
But less isn’t none, and some lakes are not going to recover in any human’s lifetime.
In 2014, the state formalized regulations to save a group of about 100 Adirondack lakes that are impaired by acid rain. Officials tried to figure out how well lakes would recover and how long it would take. Could they all be better by 2050? How about 180 years from now, in 2200? For the most part the answer is yes, by 2200, if emissions continue to fall.
Until then, there are going to be more attempts by the state to fake it until they make it.
In a tragic irony, much of America’s coal is mined from land rich in limestone, like Kentucky. So when the coal came out, got smoked up, drifted into the clouds, got blown up the Ohio Valley and fell back down, it landed in a place less able to fend for itself, geologically speaking.
The acid problems quickly showed up across the park, protected so strongly by law from ground-based intruders, like roads and subdivisions, but defenseless against this aerial attack.
Then came waves of regulations including major amendments to the federal Clean Air Act and New York’s own laws. Over that time, annual coal production in the United States has fallen by 25 percent.
Then came the Trump administration, promising to rally the industry. The federal government has done everything short of shoveling the coal out of the ground itself. That has included backing off regulations from the Obama era that would have further decreased NOX and SOX emissions. (Trump has often talked about “clean coal,” but so far there’s not really an economical way to burn a lot of coal cleanly and cheaply).
Last year, the Adirondack Council caused a major stir by arguing acid rain was already making a return in the Trump era—a fast and dramatic turnaround, if true. The group cited a drop in the pH detected by an observatory at Whiteface Mountain that checks the chemical composition of rain and snow. The Council said the change showed Trump’s efforts to re-establish coal were working.
John Sheehan, the group’s spokesman, said environmentalists feel like a marathon runner being tripped in sight of the finish line.
“We’re a little concerned this happened at a time when the Trump administration decided to stop enforcing the law,” he said.
Researchers who monitor the data for purely scientific purposes say a drop isn’t unusual and has happened before.
“Everybody is looking for evidence of a back-off of the Clean Air Act, but I think it’s a little premature,” said Paul Casson, the researcher who manages the Whiteface field station for the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.
In the past, pH readings have fluctuated based on precipitation levels. So there might just be more acid rain because there was more rain.
Michael Olson, who coordinates the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, said “if you squint” you can see large-scale national policy play out in short-term measurements, but generally trying to use the acid rain data for anything but discerning long-term trends is “not a good idea.”
After all, coal also seems to be falling by the wayside, despite Trump. Regulations designed to curb both acid rain and climate change made it less attractive to burn, while it also became more expensive to mine. Then oil and gas companies found vast pockets of lower-cost natural gas. Coal plants across the country have closed as a result.
Coal’s future aside, the recent past has been good news: Thanks to existing regulations, rain is far less acidic than it used to be. There is very little that anyone can do to undo those improvements.
Those numeric improvements to acid levels may not mean much to some species on the ground, dealing with acid from coal burned far away by humans. Fish struggle in acidic water because the acid tends to pull aluminum out of the soil, which is especially toxic to fish.
Despite water quality improvements that have already happened, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey found high fish mortality in some streams—so high in fact that they said “it could logically be inferred that toxicity of local stream waters has not changed in a biologically relevant way between 1984 and 2017.”
Grim assessments aside, officials celebrated a major victory last year when they found a brook trout reproducing in Lake Colden, a high-elevation lake in the High Peaks Wilderness that was thought to be fishless.
Benz Pond is one of the places that teeters between better and not good enough.
Benz’s problem is that the acid there lingers. Some ponds turn into streams that flush a few times a year. Benz’s water seeps away only gradually. The acidity builds up.
A private club that used to own Benz dumped about 22 tons of lime into it back in the mid-1990s, but the cure has worn off.
In the meantime, the state bought the pond and started stocking it with trout in 2001.
At very least, the water has been too messed up for them to breed, though the fish still “might be trying to go through the motions,” said Robert Fiorentino, a state fisheries manager. That means fish might produce eggs but not release them.
Fiorentino did the calculations to figure out how much lime should go into the pond to make it safe for trout. The state’s goal is to push the pH up from about 5.4 to 6.5, a happy spot for the 600 or so brook trout the state drops into the pond each fall by helicopter. That meant roughly a ton of limestone per acre.
He had to get a permit from another state agency, the Adirondack Park Agency. Then the fisheries staff had to bring the bags of lime out to the lake and figure out some way to get the bags onto the lake, which is considered a wilderness area protected from motors of any kind.
State officials planned to use a team of horses from Paul Smith’s to haul the bags onto the pond to spread. The winter—warmer than usual, perhaps because of climate change—wasn’t cooperating.
“Many years this would be sort of a safe bet, that we’d have ample ice,” said Brett McLeod, the head of the college’s forestry program.
There may have been good hard stuff beneath the surface, but the top layer was punky ice. A boot would create a slushy hole. Who knows what that would do to hooves.
So it would be up to the staff and students to haul the bags themselves, without any horsepower. Several participants thought that perhaps one intractable problem, climate change, had conspired to prevent an attempt to solve others: acidic lakes and declining fisheries.
Hidden beneath the ice were the fingerlings, stocked a few months earlier.
Stocking and liming a small pond in the middle of a big park off in the corner of an even larger world—it all seemed so futile, especially in the blizzard, when the state staffers and students had fanned out across the pond, specks themselves spreading dust across the frozen lake, which quickly got caught up by the wind and drifted away.
But the limestone wouldn’t get very far and would flow back to the lake in the spring. And the students worked fast, finishing in a day what was expected to have taken a team of horses three.