Protect the Adirondacks

It’s sad but not surprising that the Trump administration is scrapping the Clean Power Plan. Donald Trump said before and after he was elected president that he would do so, and the man he appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was a longtime warrior against the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

It also should come as no surprise that we strongly oppose this move.Over the years we’ve stood against polluters dumping toxins that poison the Adirondacks.

The Clean Power Plan was a centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s efforts to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, and thus to rein in pollution that causes climate change. Pruitt and other conservatives deny that cause-and-effect relationship, but the vast majority of climate scientists agree it is really happening.

If this was just about climate change, the Trump administration’s actions would be bad enough. Yet market forces and state efforts are doing some good on that front, even if the federal government throws caution — and pollution — to the wind. A New York Times report Tuesday showed that if natural gas stays cheap, if solar and wind power costs keep going down and if states stick to their own plans to meet the Paris climate accord benchmarks, then about half the states — New York among them — will probably beat what would have been their goals under the Clean Power Plan. Another 10 states would come close. Another 12 or so will probably miss the goals without federal pressure.

One might argue that this is OK because states should have the right to decide for themselves. Or maybe one might see it as incremental progress — like, “Well, at least the problem is contained, right?”

The problem with that logic is that pollution from the dirtier states spreads out and affects others. This isn’t just about climate change; it’s also about dumping garbage on your neighbors. West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana are three of the states that would need something like the Clean Power Plan to clean up their acts; their power plant emissions blow east and have long plagued the Adirondacks in the form of acid rain and mercury.

A reminder: By 1990, acid rain in the Adirondacks had destroyed many high-elevation spruce and fir forests and also caused some 700 lakes and ponds — more than a quarter of them — to no longer be able to support life, according to federal research. Brook trout, the Adirondack Park’s iconic native fish, were in serious danger of being wiped out here.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 was a turning point, and the Park largely recovered — but the problem is far from over. Those same pollutants still make it toxic to regularly eat fish from these supposedly pristine lakes, as the state regularly warns anglers. Plus, polluters found ways to evade clean air regulations — for instance, by hybridizing dirty old plants that had been grandfathered in. We need stronger safeguards to rein in today’s polluters.

New York long ago proved it can be done when, under Republican Gov. George Pataki, it teamed up with other northeastern states on a cap-and-trade program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Sadly, Congress rejected a similar national program, although the North Country’s Republican congressman at the time, John McHugh, supported it.

Obama’s Clean Power Plan never took effect because a judge blocked it. The North Country’s current U.S. House representative, Elise Stefanik, opposed it because, she said, Obama should not have sidestepped Congress in setting energy policy. When Congress had a chance to approve the plan, her “no” vote contributed to killing it.

Well then, Congress, step up and do it yourself. Yet Stefanik’s Republican Party, which controls both houses of Congress and the White House, is so allied with the polluters that it’s unlikely.

Stefanik knows better. Unlike Pruitt and Trump, she acknowledges that climate change is real and aggravated by human pollution. In March, she proposed a resolution asking the House to commit itself to environmental stewardship as “a conservative principle.” The text offered a horrific litany of climate change effects — storms, heat waves, fires, floods, threatened animals and insect problems — affecting all Americans but the poor worst of all. There can be no doubt, reading it, that she understands the implications.

Yet her resolution added a killer caveat: that any actions to deal with climate change “should not constrain the United States economy, especially in regards to global competitiveness.” In the end, the resolution offered no specific actions other than a vague pledge to support “economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions” to climate change.

That’s not enough. Sometimes we have to choose between corporate polluters and their victims. It’s like seeing a bear maul a child and saying, “We have to stop it, so long as we don’t hurt the bear.”

Stefanik’s environmental record was poor in her first term, but she has been working hard this year to improve it so as to be seen as more moderate and bipartisan. She opposed EPA budget cuts and supported a plan to allow natural fluctuation of water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, but those things are mostly below her party’s national radar. The Clean Power Plan, on the other hand, was broadly condemned by Republicans as the vanguard of Obama’s “War on Coal.” In Stefanik’s district, one might say it was armor against coal country’s “War on the Adirondacks.” On this issue, she has so far been a weak defender of her district’s woods, waters and people.

Is that her final answer?

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