Dire New Acid Rain Study.
We forgot about acid rain. The Clean Air Act was going to end the problem, but it got worse. Now, even with draconian measures, it with take decades to repair the damage to our forests and streams.
Consciousness Iroquois Chief Oren Lyons (from an address to the United Nations -- Geneva, Switzerland, 1977) I do not see a delegation For the Four-Footed. I do not see a seat for the eagles. We forget and consider Ourselves superior. But we are after all A mere part of the Creation. And we must consider To understand where we are. And we stand somewhere between The mountain and the Ant. Somewhere and only there As part and parcel Of the Creation.
It was 1963 when a visionary group of Dartmouth College scientists teamed up with the U.S. Forest Service in New Hampshire's White Mountains, and began collecting stream water samples from West Thornton's now venerable Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest Field Station (HBEF). Little did they realize that their long-term data would help assess a problem plaguing more than 100 million people east of the Mississippi: acid rain.
Without baseline data gathered in the intervening years, acid rain, and its impacts on soil, water, forests, and aquatic life might never have been discovered. Since implementation of 1990% Clean Air Act Amendments, ongoing studies by Hanover, New Hampshire's Hubbard Brook Research Foundation (HBRF) have progressed considerably. And its newly dire warnings are being heard -- all the way to Washington, D.C.
Last March, in a bold move that attracted attention from the nation's top news media, HBRF held a press conference -- praising industry for reducing sulfur dioxide ([SO.sub.2]) emissions. Then, in the form of a new report, the foundation dropped a bomb. Since 1990, everything done to reduce emissions from smoke stacks, utility plants, and auto exhausts, hasn't been nearly enough. Forests, and especially streams, are not recovering as they should.
HBRF's report is titled, "Acid Rain Revisited: Advances in Scientific Understanding Since the Passage of the 1970 and 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments." Hubbard Brook scientists, led by Dr. Gene Likens (an author of the report and currently director of the Millbrook, NY-based Institute of Ecological Studies) have been conducting annual studies of the Northeast's forests, soils and streams. They were the first to warn of acid rain's harm to our lakes and forests. In the report, they enlisted the research capabilities of colleagues from other parts of the Northeast. They found compromised ecosystems, under increasing stress. At some sites, there are dying and diseased trees, acidic lakes, fishless streams, leached-out soils, and toxic aluminum in waterways. And the scientists at Hubbard Brook say it will take decades to restore the ecosystem to its earlier balance -- even if we take drastic new measures to stop the pollution.
In the report summary, the scientists note, "Acid rain ... has had a greater environmental impact than previously projected. Many people believe the problem was solved with passage of the Clean Air Amendments. However, research from the HBEF, and from other study sites in the northeast, demonstrates that acid rain is still a significant problem."
CLF Senior Attorney Christopher Kilian says, "Over the last 10 to 15 years, the governors of New York and New England have been firmly in favor of curbing emissions of sulfur dioxide [[SO.sub.2]] and nitrogen oxide [[NO.sub.x]] from coal-fired power plants in the midwest, a major contributor to acid deposition. [[SO.sub.2]] emissions from some plants have gone down, but now we're seeing that the problems may be far more difficult because of nitrogen pollution from cars, and power plants are still major polluters. Last year, New York filed a law suit against the Midwest plants, seeking more restrictive emissions of [NO.sub.x] and [SO.sub.2] [from them].
"The Hubbard Brook Research Foundation is stating that plant emissions must go down another 80% to begin restoring the ecosystem. Given the catastrophic conditions, the need for these reductions is immediate."
* The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest Field Station -- W. Thornton, NH
Some of the world's leading research on acid rain and forest ecosystem health is being carried out here in the heart of wild New Hampshire, under a pristine-looking canopy of green. One feels a sense of peace in the shade of its deciduous and coniferous trees. But in speaking with Hubbard Brook scientists one quickly learns that the apparently vigorous, healthy forest has been losing its vitality with each passing year.
Says HBRF Executive Director, Kathy Fallon Lambert, "Fly over New England, and you see a lush blanket of green. It gives the impression of being part of a healthy ecosystem, but the forest is under stress. I'm concerned about things you can't see. Basically invisible pollution enters the atmosphere, where it's taken in by the trees, goes into the water, and is very hard to measure. But it has important ramifications for the forest's health, the health of the overall environment, and human health. We're finding that all of it is interrelated. My concern is that people won't realize that things may be far different from how they appear, and that it will take too long to measure and document what the harm to the ecosystem and to human health may be. There could be a really high price to pay."
Kilian adds, "Many acid precipitation studies have been done in New England. The U.S. Forest Service has been active in the Green Mountain National Forest. University of Vermont researchers were the first to notice extensive die-offs of red spruce at high elevations. But most of the problems with acid rain have continued unabated, and the issue fell out of the public eye after passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act."
Kilian came to CLF in late 1999, after having been an attorney at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He already knew of Lambert's work at HBRF, and he says, "I was increasingly concerned about the acid rain issue. It's just incredibly depressing to see the damage that's being done. In New York State's Adirondack Park, hundreds of lakes are dead; in Vermont, at high elevations, all of our lakes and streams are dead."
Kilian grew up fishing in the Adirondacks. One of his favorite books is Adirondack Trout Fishing in the 1930s, and he wistfully recalls reading about lakes and ponds where people caught trophy-size native brook trout. He says, "I've gone to some of those places recently; they're devoid of life."
Hubbard Brook scientists make it clear that they want to bring the latest scientific evidence and research to policy makers at national, state, and local levels, so that sound, science-based, cooperative decision-making can reverse the effects of acid deposition. The introduction to their report says, "The goal is not to advocate particular policy outcomes, but rather to provide scientific information on the likely consequences of potential actions, and to ensure that this information is timely, clear, and widely available."
Lambert says, "A lot of the energy concerns we have go back to fossil-fuel consumption, and that goes back to how people choose to live. When we talk about ozone, acid rain, smog, haze, water quality, the health of the forests, and the health of the fish, a lot of it gets linked back to the consumption of fossil fuels."
The political context for issuing HBRF's new report emerged during a growing interest in air quality. In the 106th Congress, by the end of 2000, a number of bills were introduced to deal with acid rain and ozone. As Lambert explains, "We thought. `What a great time to step back and pull the information together.' We spoke with policy makers, forestry experts, state air quality divisions, and members of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program. We tried to speak with all the people who'd be involved with decision making. It's our responsibility to present them with the best scientific information. (See sidebar, page 26.)
* Long-Term Baseline Evidence About Acid Rain Now Mounting
Many corporate and government officials have for years dismissed concerns about environmental problems such as acid rain, claiming there's no scientific evidence, or long-term baseline studies, to support them. Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) represents a state that has suffered grievously from the problem. He read the Hubbard Brook report and said, "People in Washington are fond of saying that they want to base environmental policy on sound science. This study shows that we must require further significant reductions in the pollutants that cause acid rain, if we are to have any hope of protecting the lakes, soils, fish, and trees of the Northeast. This is a wake-up call. It should lead anyone who truly believes in science-based policy to support acid rain control legislation."
Scientists participating in the Hubbard Brook study have spent more than three decades addressing the "no scientific evidence" crowd. Their latest report showed that much has been learned over the years -- about soils, forest ecosystems, and the regenerative limits of the Northeast's environment.
Says Lambert, "Based on more than 30 years of research at Hubbard Brook, we tried to ... estimate how long it would take for forests, lakes and streams to recover from [the effects of] acid rain, based on the requirements of the Clean Air Act and on future regulatory options. We found that with even an additional 80% reduction in sulfur dioxide from power plants, it will take from twenty to twenty-five years for streams like those in the Hubbard Brook watersheds to change from acidic to non-acidic. That's in terms of improving the chemistry of the stream. To really get full biological recovery of fish and trees, it will take another eight to ten years."
* Clean Air Act Loophole Lets Oldest, Dirtiest Power Plants Keep Polluting
Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has exempted the oldest, dirtiest, coal-burning power plants from complying with modern emissions standards, according to Clear The Air (CTA), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization. CTA's website (www.cleartheair.org) says, "As a result, these so-called `grandfathered' power plants emit up to 10 times more [SO.sub.2] pollution than modern coal plants. This lucrative loophole allows power companies using grandfathered facilities to gain an unfair cost advantage over their more environmentally responsible competitors. As a result, the power industry is relying on these old plants more than ever. Between 1992 and 1998, there was a dramatic 15.8% increase in the amount of electricity generated from [them]."
Following the Hubbard Brook press conference, a Boston Globe editorial noted: "Like an unpleasant guest who stays on after you've given him his coat, acid rain continues to plague lakes, rivers, and trees more than a decade after passage of a clean-air law that was supposed to bring it under control. The main reason, say scientists, is that the acid buildup over years had a greater effect on soil than expected. Restoring soils to more balanced acidity will both help trees and reduce the acidity leached into waterways."
Globe editors endorsed a new, bipartisan clean-air bill, whose chief sponsor is Senator James Jeffords (I-Vt.). During the last presidential campaign, George W. Bush said he favored new mandatory limits on four major pollutants that come from power plants: carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. [SO.sub.2] and [NO.sub.x] from power plants are two major contributors to acid rain. The Jeffords bill proposed aggressive new standards for limiting all four pollutants. It would also end the "grandfather" exemption for the big, dirty, coal-burning plants, some of them built decades ago.
* What Will Our Legacy Be?
Can citizens, policymakers, manufacturers, and power plant owners work together to eliminate acid rain? Doing so would mean rethinking the way we live, commute, travel, heat our homes, and plan our cities. Are we up to the task, or will we continue to fall victim to our habits?
"Look how long the problem has been around, yet still we haven't solved it," Lambert says. "It's relatively simple to do, compared to [dealing with the] toxics now showing up in water supplies. We know its sources, its effects on the environment, and how to eliminate it. If we can't, when we have the technology, resources, and knowledge, how are we going to deal with much more difficult issues?
Kilian says, "The scale, severity, and impact of the problems are so vast that it's hard to get your mind around them. The researchers at Hubbard brook know the calamity we're facing. One of the challenges we have as environmentalists is bringing the research to a broader awareness among policymakers."
In noting that legal remedies might help persuade polluters to make even greater strides in reducing acid-rain precipitates, Kilian adds, "One idea is to approach the forest products companies, as a class of major industrial interests who are having their asset base devalued and damaged from this pollution coming from the Midwest power plants. If there's a way we can get an industry force to get behind private courses of action, to recover their damages outside the Clean Air Act, it would send a pretty powerful message and make polluters pay for the damage they're causing."
* "We All Live Downstream"
HBRF's report on acid rain is the first completed project of its "Science Links" Program. It relied on knowledge about acid rain's effects on the region from the perspective of a multi-disciplinary scientific team. As Lambert explains, "Rarely do you get a team of ten scientists together who take two years to synthesize findings while taking an overview of an entire ecosystem. Taking a full systems view means evaluating all the inputs to the atmosphere, all the outlets to the water, and all the cycling of nutrients and water through the soil and through the vegetation, not to mention the role that plants and animals play in using and generating resources.... When you're taking a systems view, you're really analyzing and trying to understand all those interactions.
"The ecosystem of the forest is more than just the plants and animals that live there. It's influenced by the air, water, and chemicals that enter from the atmosphere.... The other important cycle relates to human activity. What we do in a forest influences the quality of the air, water, and habitat that the forest provides. The forest also cleanses the quality of the air and water. Human contributions such as pollution influence the ecosystem, affecting the quality that forest habitat provides.
"When you're talking about environmental damage from acid rain, there are some striking examples of ecosystems on the brink -- aquatic ecosystems in the Adirondacks, for example, and forest ecosystems on Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau. Go to some of the forests that have been affected by multiple stress syndrome. I've only seen pictures, but the devastation took my breath away. It's in limited, sensitive areas where ... soils are not well mixed. They're not terribly fertile to begin with.... The sugar maples on the ridge tops have basically lost much of their crowns."
The scientists' ability to take the long-term view enabled the HBRF team to pose questions about how well the Clean Air Act has worked. As Lambert says, "No one ever asked that question in scientific terms before. They asked it in economic terms, such as, `How much does it cost?' but not in ecological terms, such as, `How well is it doing?' You know, `What's the performance?'"
The lack of such questions prior to the HBRF study is easier to understand when you visit the EPA's Acid Rain website. It states that solutions to the problem will be sought "at the least cost to society." However, given the earth's biological limits, and the expanding human utilization of its resources, there is an inevitable cost to finding more harmonious uses of natural resources. As Dr. Likens once warned, "A global economy dedicated to relatively unrestricted growth seems on a collision course with the goal of a sustainable world."
As Lambert warns now, "The EPA's stated goal of meeting environmental needs with the `least cost to society' is definitely a short cut in many ways. It doesn't force the power plants that need to clean up to do it." She recalls seeing a bumper sticker that puts her concerns about acid rain and its causes in perspective, one that might serve as a warning for a complacent world. It reads: "We All Live Downstream."
We do. SUVs clog our roads, and buses spew out toxic clouds -- coast to coast. But the midwestern coal-burners, reduced [SO.sub.2] emissions notwithstanding, have victimized New York and New England more than anyplace else. They've acidified our hallowed landscape for too many years. The bumper sticker most belongs here. Some people live further downstream than others.
To view an online version of the "Acid Rain Revisited" report and a related list of publications, visit the Hubbard Brook Research Facility website at www.hbrook. sr.unh.edu.
RELATED ARTICLE: Fog-Bound Coast of Maine is Highly Acidic
The cover photo on the October, 1999 issue of BioScience was of a dead red spruce tree on the top of Vermont's Mt. Mansfield. It exhibited signs of acid rain deposition-related decline. The cloud water at Mt. Mansfield, and at similar sites, is highly acidic and is thought to predispose red spruce to freezing injury and decline.
Similar problems are affecting red spruce trees along Maine's bold, granite coast. "Acid fog is generally about ten times more acidic than acid rain, and is definitely a problem there," says Richard Jagels, a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystem Science at the University of Maine. "The fog has a direct effect on the forest canopy. Because [it] takes calcium out of the cell membrane, [it] changes the structure of the cell. Membranes of individual cells are damaged. Plants are predisposed to stress-induced injury. Temperature extremes, insects, and drought act as much greater stressors than before."
In July, Jagels will present a paper at the Second International Conference on Fog, in St. John's, Newfoundland. Titled, "The Pathways and Effects of Acidic Fogs On and Within Conifer Needles," the paper concludes that "red spruce, among conifers, is particularly susceptible to acid-fog initiated damage to foliage.... Leaf cellular physiology is affected by reductions in cell membrane calcium of mesophyll cells, and by increased oxidative stress. These cellular changes lead to a predisposition to stress-induced injury, which is greater in current year needles than in older needles."
Jagels explains, "The needles the trees put forth each year can be retained up to 16 years, but the stresses of acid fog have begun to impact the average number of years they are retained.... the average has been eight to ten years. Now, in impacted areas along the coast, it's more like three to four years.
"You think of clouds as being pure distilled water that has evaporated and condensed, but.... this water is recondensing around some kind of nuclei. In an area where there is no pollution, that might just be inert dust particles, but in an area where there is pollution.... those pollutants become part of that fog."
Richard Sawyer (Paris43@aol.com), is a veteran environmental writer who owns a Natick, Mass. public relations firm -- Richard Sawyer Associates.