Program will seek to reverse acid-rain damage

Local lakes damaged by acid rain may benefit from a new program that aims to examine ways to restore Adirondack lakes and streams.

The Adirondack Acid Rain Recovery Program will look for new approaches to reversing the damage caused by acid-rain pollution, which affects hundreds of Adirondack water bodies.

Last week, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the creation of the $400,000 grant program.

Acid rain is caused when air emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, generated predominately by coal-fired power plants, interact in the atmosphere to form acid compounds that fall back to earth as acid rain.

The Adirondacks are particularly sensitive to acid rain. When acid rain falls on the Adirondacks, it acidifies forest soils, which reduce growth and survival of tree species. It also acidifies lakes and other water bodies, which can kill fish and water organisms or affect their growth.

John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said he expects the acid rain studies from the grant program to begin in the spring.

Some of the lakes in the area that have been affected severely by acid rain include Big Moose Lake, Brooktrout, Bellows, Stewart, Nine Corner and Jockeybush lakes.

Not all those lakes are to the point where they are lifeless because of acid rain, but the drop in pH levels have created problems for the marine life living there.

“Acid rain doesn’t actually start doing a lot of damage right away; it takes a long time for the effects to accumulate, so places where the soil is the thinnest, you will notice the damage first,” Sheehan said.

He said to combat acid rain in the 1980s and ’90s, lime and limestone was used to decrease the acidity of lakes. However, he said this also had a negative effect because it can make certain plants toxic to mammals.

“It is not good to just start spreading lime all over the forest in an effort to neutralize acid rain,” Sheehan said. “Some of the things that were effective that I think this program can build on was placing limestone in the inlet streams to major lakes and ponds so that the water coming in will have a higher pH than it normally would. In other cases, placing lime on a frozen lake surface during the winter time also helped [lower acidity].”

He said pollution is decreasing because of federal regulations on coal plants and automobiles.

“Pollution input is decreasing, and that is the first step you have to take in order for programs like this to really make a difference,” Sheehan said. “The quicker we can get chemical recovery in the waters, the quicker we will see biological recovery. Once the pH levels are reduced to a livable level, some of the plants and life we had in the water will begin to return.”

Sheehan said although acid rain won’t hurt people swimming, it can contaminate fish with mercury, and if ingested after being caught, it can create serious health problems.

Acid rain also can hurt the ability of maple trees to reproduce and destroy the commercial value of timber land, Sheehan said.

Funding for the new program was obtained by the attorney general’s office in a multi-state settlement with Cinergy Corp., now Duke Energy Corp., over violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

The funds were obtained in a 2010 settlement with Cinergy Corp. after the company failed to install technology for controlling sulfur dioxide emissions at its Midwestern coal-fired plants.

A news release said in addition to providing funds for the program, the settlement required Cinergy to control pollution.

The program is intended to jump-start research projects for reducing the effects of acid rain pollution and advancing recovery in the Adirondacks.

“As progress is made in reducing acid-rain pollution, hundreds of lakes and streams in the Adirondacks are still struggling to recover from this pollution,” Schneiderman said in the news release.

Acid rain has decreased significantly in recent years as a result of federal and state efforts to limit air pollution, but parts of the Adirondacks have been slow to recover.

Scientists say more than 500 water bodies in the Adirondacks continue to suffer from the damage caused by acid rain, the news release said.

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