Pollution is here to stay. Let's find a way to deal with it, and let's do it now.
That's one conclusion drawn after the Lake Placid News polled environmental groups and colleges in the region and state agencies about the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park. No. 3 was pollution.
“Human activity tends to create waste that has to be dealt with, and how we deal with that has evolved over the years,” said John Sheehan, director of communications at the Adirondack Council in Elizabethtown. “I think we're getting much better at it. We're always going to have something we're going to need to keep out of the environment and find a way to do that that is compatible with both the economy and hope for the future.”
Most of the groups in this survey specifically mentioned air pollution as one of the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park: the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Wild, Paul Smith's College Adirondack Watershed Institute and state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation. Some mentioned acid rain specifically. Others named the rolling back of pollution rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Dismantling of environmental protections, especially the Clean Air Act by the federal government including the regulation changes that will increase the carbon, acid deposition and mercury emissions of coal-fired power plants,” wrote Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club based in Lake George. “Failure to uphold commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce U.S. emissions and combat global climate change.”
Acid rain has a long history in the Adirondacks and was a major environmental problem in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Historic data documents how air pollution which bellowed out of the smoke stacks of midwestern power plants was carried east on the jet stream and fell as acid rain upon our landscape and communities,” said APA Public Information Officer Keith McKeever. “Acid rain devastated our fisheries, especially higher elevation ponds, and caused massive die back of red spruce forests across our heralded High Peaks.”
But the acid rain situation has improved since the Clean Air Act amendment of 1990 that authorized programs for acid deposition control.
“Thank goodness we've had the Clean Air Act amendment that brought the Adirondacks to an 80 to 90 percent reduction in sulfate and nitrate pollution that's downwind of the sources of that pollution, which are coal-fired power plants,” said David Gibson, managing partner at Adirondack Wild in Niskayuna.
Even with the success in reducing acid rain since 1990, the Adirondack Council says the threats are now accelerating.
“For the last two years, we've had a reversal in direction from Washington, the EPA rolling back, no longer running pollution control equipment in 36 coal-fired power plants,” Janeway said. “The concern is that the improvements put in place on the protection side have not been as aggressive as they need to be to offset the increase in threats.”
New York state was a leader in acid rain legislation in 1984 when the Acid Deposition Control Act was signed. The state's efforts to reduce emissions that contribute to acidic deposition were the first of its kind in the nation. The U.S. government followed in 1990 by passing the acid rain amendment to the Clean Air Act. New York can once again lead the nation in passing tough legislation to prevent different types of pollution, according to the Council.
“We can develop laws in New York,” Janeway said. “We could put in place critical load regulations which limits the amount of pollutants that are allowed to fall somewhere in place as a model for how it can be done on a national level and international level that would protect the Adirondacks, and as it's scaled up, it would protect the world by having the Adirondacks show the world how a conservation landscape can do its part to fight climate change.”
Since the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, state highway crews have applied salt to Adirondack roadways in the winter months to improve driving conditions. A lot of salt. Since 1980, 6,937,200 tons of salt have been applied to the roads, according to AWI Executive Director Dan Kelting, who presented the findings of a road salt study to the public at the Saranac Lake Free Library on May 30. In one year, he said, 192,700 tons of road salt are applied to Adirondack roads.
The study of 358 private wells around the Adirondack Park - funded by AdkAction and The FUND for Lake George - found that salt is contaminating groundwater and seeping into private wells.
“We use too much salt,” Kelting said at the meeting. “Roughly one-third of our lakes have road salt in them. Fifty-two percent of our streams have salinization. … Salinization has effects on ecosystems, human health and property values. Your property values could be affected if your water's polluted.”
The issue of road salt has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, particularly in places such as Lake George and Lake Placid, where the waterways are being negatively affected the most in the Park. That means more studies on how road salt is affecting waterways, and it means more pressure on the local and state highway departments to find alternatives to road salt.
“It needs continued emphasis because it does cause a lot of pollution, both to soils and waterways that are near the highways,” Gibson said. “As we rethink how to keep our roads clear and to what extent, and our speed levels, it's something within local controls, state and local, in terms of how we calibrate trucks and snow removal equipment, to pretreat our roads or not, and how much salt is applied or whether alternatives are applied.”
As salt levels rise in lakes, it also negatively affects plant and fish species.
When it comes to this “stubborn problem,” as Gibson calls it, “The state is demonstrating leadership in places but not in a systematic way yet. It is possible for the state and local governments to systematically look at the road salt issue and start to really reduce the amount that's applied.”
The state Department of Transportation is conducting pilot programs around Lake George and Lake Placid to reduce the amount of road salt it applies to state highways. One program recently began on a 16-mile stretch of state Route 86 between Lake Placid and Wilmington in which the DOT will experiment with salt brine before storms, salt mixtures and salt-sand abrasives - instead the normal procedure of dropping 100 percent road salt during snowstorms. During the program, the fastest speed limit will be reduced to 45 mph as a safety precaution.
Gibson also suggested that culturally, Americans can have an impact by reducing their speeds on the highways.
Wastewater treatment plants
The Adirondack Council has been extremely active in drawing attention to pollution caused by wastewater treatment plants in the Adirondack Park. In 2016, it issued a report titled, “Clean Water Infrastructure in the Adirondack Park: Crisis or Opportunity” that included a summary of clean water infrastructure needs in the Park. A year later, the group issued a follow-up report titled, “Wastewater Treatment Plants in the Adirondacks: Status and Compliance and Operational Needs.”
“We checked, and there wasn't a single wastewater treatment plant in the Park compliant 100 percent with the Clean Water Act,” Janeway said. “That's shocking. The water is what is so critical to the Adirondacks. It was not being protected at the level it needed to be. Add on top of that the septic systems. Add on top of that the road salt. Those are three distinct sources of pollution.”
Yet here is where the Adirondack Council says things are improving on the fight against pollution. Earlier this month, it sent out a press release applauding Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Environmental Facilities Corporation and DEC for their work in awarding $45 million in grants to 29 Adirondack communities for clean water projects since 2015.
“State grants help to spread the cost of hosting 12.4 million annual visitors, so the Park's rural taxpayers don't bear the entire burden. These systems cost millions of dollars to build and maintain,” Janeway said in the release. “Most Adirondack communities have fewer than 2,000 residents.”
In his phone conversation with the News, Janeway gave the governor a lot of credit for helping protect the Adirondacks.
“The state of New York is charged with the responsibility for the Adirondack Park and the water and air,” Janeway said. “That's where the buck stops. Thankfully, we have a governor who gets that, who likes Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks and who sincerely seems committed to trying to make sure the state does good for the Adirondack Park.”
As the local and state governments do their part in fighting pollution in the Adirondack Park - with the assistance and support of environmental groups and college research programs, there is still much to be done. Other forms of pollution include private septic tanks on waterways such as Lake George, fertilizer runoff from farms in New York and Vermont into Lake Champlain, invasive species and carbon pollution.
As for some solutions, according to the APA's McKeever, in August 2018 Gov. Cuomo said he directed the DEC to prepare regulations to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a group of potent greenhouse gas pollutants. He is also asking other states to join New York and California to reduce greenhouse gas and air pollution.
“As citizens, as Adirondackers, we need to coalesce and demand that our federal government stop prioritizing regressive energy sources industries and promote renewable energy innovation and conservation which would result in cleaner air, create new high paying safer jobs and expand a new energy economy,” McKeever wrote in an email.
While admitting that pollution will always be an environmental threat to the Adirondack Park, Janeway said there has been a lot of progress in the past 50 years for restoring and enhancing the environment for public health and wildlife, but more needs to be done.
“Bald eagles are back. Loons are back. A lot of lakes are recovering,” Janeway said. “There is not a single Adirondack lake that is considered 100 percent recovered to preindustrial levels. We are in sight of the finish line, and now we are being tripped up (by the EPA).”
Yet the government should focus on all the sources of pollution, according to Janeway.
“The Park is too special to write off one threat and just focus on another, and the Adirondack Council thankfully has the breadth and the depth, the experience to be able to simultaneously conduct a campaign on acid rain, fight invasive species, and we're just the Adirondack Council,” he said. “New York state, with multiple agencies, has the capacity and the will, I believe, to try and protect clean water and clean air from air pollutants, from road salt, from invasive species and fund more research and monitoring.”