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New alarm on acid rain in Adirondacks; Federal report shows nitrogen levels continue to rise in N.Y. waterways


WASHINGTON -- A landmark air-pollution law enacted a decade ago to reduce acid rain has failed to slow the acidification of lakes and streams in the Adirondacks, many of which are rapidly losing the ability to sustain life, according to a new federal report.

The study by the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan research agency for Congress, raises sharp questions about the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which set tough restrictions on smokestack emissions of sulfur and nitrogen, the two components of acid rain. The report shows that while sulfur levels have declined substantially in a vast majority of the Adirondacks waterways, nitrogen levels have continued to rise in nearly half of them.

In water, nitrogen turns to nitric acid, which can damage fish larvae and create conditions that poison adult fish. Increases in these lakes acidity raise questions about their prospects for recovering under the current program, the report concludes.

New York officials and environmental groups seized on the report as clear evidence that the federal government urgently needs to set even stricter standards for nitrogen emissions, particularly from upwind coal-burning power plants in the Midwest.

'Tangible evidence'

This provides tangible evidence that things have gotten worse in the area of the country where everyone agreed it was already bad, said Rep. John Sweeney, a Republican who represents much of the Adirondacks.

"New York has already taken the lead in reducing power-plant emissions, he said.

This is a federal issue. There have to be new nationwide standards

Sweeney and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from Utica, N.Y., and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan are the lead sponsors of legislation that would require utility companies to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent more than the levels required under the 1990 amendments.

The legislation has been bottled up in committees by opponents, primarily members of Congress from the Midwest. Sweeney and lobbyists for environmental groups said they thought the accounting offices report would generate support for reopening debate on the m

Study called inconclusive

But officials representing Midwestern utility companies said the new study was not conclusive enough to warrant additional action by Congress. While not disputing the science underlying the reports conclusions, they said it was too early to evaluate the 1990 amendments, parts of which have only recently taken effect.

Nitrogen oxide reductions just started in 1996 and then were increased in 2000, said John Kinsman, manager for atmospheric science at the Edison Electric Institute, an association of shareholder-owned electric utilities. There will be a lot less nitrogen oxide emitted from utilities now than there was last year. And that certainly isnt in the data being analyzed.

Even some acid-rain experts who support the reports scientific conclusions questioned whether simply reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants would be sufficient to solve the problems in the Adirondacks, since over a third of the nitrogen in the atmosphere comes from automobiles.

There is an expectation that if you reduce nitrogen emissions from utilities, the acid rain problem in the Adirondacks will get better, said Charles T. Driscoll, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University. And that is probably an unrealistic expectation. You probably wouldnt even see a change from the Moynihan bill. It will probably take a much more comprehensive approach.

Acid precipitation occurs when sulfur or nitrogen borne on the prevailing winds mixes with atmospheric moisture to form sulfuric or nitric acid, falling earthward as acid rain, snow or fog. Dry nitrogen and sulfur pollution also turns to acid when deposited in waterways or mixed with moisture in the soil.

The General Accounting Office study, which will be released to the public on Monday, was requested by Sweeney and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The study is being released at a time when a bipartisan parade of officials from New York and other northeastern states have been scrambling to show that they are concerned about acid rain.

Last September, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York, a Democrat, announced that he planned to sue 17 power plants, mainly in the Midwest and the Virginias, to force them to reduce emissions that cause smog and acid rain.

A month later, Gov. George Pataki of New York, a Republican, said he would order power plants in New York to greatly reduce smokestack emissions. And in November, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Republican, said he would follow Spitzers lead in suing 16 coal-burning power plants.

The accounting offices report does not break new scientific ground, but instead brings together the findings of many recent scientific studies in a highly readable form. It also offers gloomier predictions than many other recent scientific surveys, suggesting that the situation in the Adirondacks seems to be deteriorating faster than scientists with the federal Environmental Protection Agency had thought.

It basically says that more lakes are dying faster, said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, a nonprofit environmental group. Their worst-case scenario was optimistic.

Numerous studies have determined that high acidity has been killing fish in Adirondack waterways for many years.

According to the report, the nitrogen deposited in the Adirondacks during the 1990s remained relatively stable.

But in that same period, the level of nitrogen rose in 48 percent of the 52 Adirondack lakes that are routinely tested for acid levels by Adirondack Lakes Survey Corp., a nonprofit group.

Nitrogen levels declined in only a quarter of the lakes, and remained level in the rest. By comparison, sulfur levels declined in 92 percent of the same lakes

Two reasons offered

The report offers two reasons that nitrogen levels have continued to rise in the waterways. First, forests can absorb some nitrogen, which is a nutrient for trees and other plants. But older forests, like those in the Adirondacks, tend to absorb less, allowing nitrogen in the soil to leach into nearby ponds, lakes and streams.

Second, soils often contain elements that neutralize acid precipitation. But the Adirondacks have been inundated by acid rain for so long that those neutralizing elements have been depleted in many places, the report concludes.

Like wet sponges that no longer can soak up water, parts of the Adirondacks are becoming saturated with nitrogen and thus incapable of buffering waterways from acid precipitation, the report suggests.

"Lakes in the Adirondack Mountains are taking longer to recover than lakes located elsewhere and are likely to recover less or not recover, without further reductions of acid deposition," the report says.

Several experts on acid rain said they agreed with the report's overall conclusions about the potentially devastating impact of rising nitrogen levels in the region's waterways. But they raised questions about the causes of those rising levels and the ways to reduce them.

Gary Lovett, a plant ecologist with the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a private nonprofit research organization in Millbrook, N.Y., said changes in climate or vegetation growth could also affect nitrogen levels. A drought, for instance, could reduce nitrogen absorption years later, he said.

Moreover, while he supports reducing nitrogen emissions from industrial smokestacks, he said the problem could not be solved until something was also done about the nitrogen in automobile exhaust.

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