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Winds of Change

The candidates won’t talk about it, but a growing national consensus on air quality may result in environmental policy progress, with New York state leading the way

by Darryl McGrath on October 11, 2012

 

It may be no accident that during the first debate of the presidential race—the one devoted to domestic policy—neither candidate spent any time on environmental issues.

Forget about job growth, tax cuts and the federal deficit—the really tricky subject in this race, the environment, is the one that no one really wants to touch. For the Obama administration, that’s because the president is not anxious to remind voters that some big-ticket policies governing air pollution are most likely to come after the election, after the votes in heavy-hitting Electoral College states like Ohio and Illinois are already counted.

And the Romney camp almost certainly realizes that no matter which candidate wins, certain major national policy changes governing air quality are in the pipeline and as good as inevitable, no matter how many court challenges they may yet face. Reversing them at this late stage would be the environmental equivalent of trying to pass a constitutional amendment declaring that the Earth is flat. George W. Bush was the progenitor of one of these especially divisive air-quality rules, if any further proof is needed that we’re not going to undo a generation’s worth of progress on air pollution, whatever the outcome of the election.

photo by Darryl McGrath

Against this backdrop, New York is about to embark on a major change in its acid-rain collection and analysis program, one that will mark a turning point for the state’s pioneering effort to protect its lakes and forests. That effort has been especially important in the delicate ecosystem of the Adirondack Park, where a combination of environmental factors—location, very thin soil and a snowpack that melts each spring and dumps a huge buildup of airborne contaminants into the waterways—have made the region especially  vulnerable to acid rain. In the Adirondacks, 128 lakes and rivers have been harmed by this airborne pollution. In some cases that damage is so severe that many of the fish and plant populations in those water bodies have died off, leaving water that looks pristine because it is literally sterile and lifeless.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s acid rain monitoring program dates back 30 years and has yielded a treasure trove of data that has been used to ratchet up New York’s emissions controls to levels rivaled perhaps only by California. But the strictest state controls in the country cannot work if smokestack pollution is blowing into New York from the Midwest.

And so, as the latest federal effort to drastically cut those emissions in other states plays out in federal court, New York is shifting from its historic solo effort on acid rain monitoring to membership in a cooperative effort known as the National Atmospheric Deposition Program. Think of it as strength in numbers—the program is a cooperative whose members include federal agencies, states, American Indian tribes and universities—with all of them combining resources. New York’s participation will allow the state to collect more data, and have its samples analyzed more cheaply. This change will also allow New York to participate in a five-year pilot project by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to collect additional acid rain data.

But environmentalists have been so accustomed to New York going it alone and operating an acid-rain monitoring system independent of congressional budget battles and national politics, that when word got out this summer that the state might close down its acid deposition monitoring station at Nick’s Lake, in Fulton County, the anticipated closure became a news story in the Adirondacks. Environmental advocacy groups denounced the move as yet another example of shortsighted budget cutting. (The Nick’s Lake station will remain open, as it turns out.) For New York to finally join a national cooperative acid-rain monitoring effort that is itself 30 years old is a major step in the complex, fraught realm of national air pollution politics

“So much has been happening right now,” says John Sheehan, spokesman for the environmental advocacy group the Adirondack Council. “The Obama administration has been moving everything in the right direction. But they were very concerned about doing a lot of progressive regulation prior to the election, and they tended to put off a lot of the deadlines until after November. If he is reelected, we expect a lot of progress to be made on air pollution nationwide.”

 

The acid deposition monitoring station on the campus of Paul Smith’s College in Franklin County, within the Adirondack Park, looks like a sleek plastic wishing well—two buckets sit atop a small platform a few yards outside of the cabin that houses the computers for the station. One of the buckets collects dry samples of “particulate,” or airborne particles that may have traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles from the coal-fired smokestacks that spewed them out before the particles dropped from the sky over the Adirondacks. Next to the dry-sample bucket is the wet-sample bucket, which is covered with a plastic shield until it starts to rain. When rain hits a battery-powered sensor on the monitoring station, the plastic cover over the wet-sample bucket slides on a track over the dry-sample bucket to protect those contents, and the rain—which is very likely contaminated with the burned-coal byproducts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that give acid rain its name—falls into the wet-sample bucket.

This station is eight years old, which makes it one of the newer of the five DEC acid deposition monitoring stations in the Adirondacks. New York was a national leader on acid deposition monitoring even before the state decided to become part of the National Acid Deposition Monitoring Program, and with good reason: Prevailing winds blow a lot of Midwest air pollution toward New York as if someone had painted a large target over the New York landscape. Around the state, 16 DEC stations track the stuff falling out of the sky, as well as 12 stations operated by other groups as part of the National Acid Deposition Monitoring effort that the state is just starting to join.

As part of its forthcoming membership in the program, the DEC will convert six of the state’s acid rain monitors to national monitors. These, combined with the 12 national monitors that other groups already operate around the state, mean that New York’s 18 acid deposition monitors will be the second-highest number in the country. (Colorado has 19.)

“From the big-picture perspective, I think this was a really wise move,” says Greg Lampman, a project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA supports monitoring efforts around the state by providing funding and information and bringing parties together on cooperative efforts that can reduce the costs of monitoring programs. Monitoring in New York is taking place not just through the DEC, but by other agencies, organizations and even companies, and on topics including not only acid rain, but water and soil quality and the search for toxins such as mercury.

Participation at national level for acid deposition monitoring will give New York access to more data, as well as data from other states, at a lower cost than if the state were to continue to do this on its own, Lampman says. It will also give New York a national voice in the development of federal policy. As part of the shift toward national monitoring, the state will participate in a five-year pilot project by the Environmental Protection Agency in which the EPA is collecting acid rain data to eventually update air quality standards whose origins date to Clean Air Act of 1970. Both the Nick’s Lake and Paul Smith’s stations will participate in this pilot project, in which Lampman says it is especially important to include ambient air samples from the Adirondacks.

“We should have some serious sway at the national level,” he says.

At a more local level, the station at Paul Smith’s College is a researcher’s delight for science professor Mike Danunzio, who oversees this station for the DEC, collects the water samples every Tuesday for analysis by the state Department of Health, and has a ready-made teaching tool for his students.

“They’re extremely important,” Danunzio says of the stations. He describes the body of data of 30 years of monitoring by the state is “a great historical record.”

And the state has used that data to create and strengthen a long line of emissions regulations that have made New York a leader in pollution control, notes Charles Driscoll, a professor in Syracuse University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who studies how the environment responds to airborne pollution.

photo by Darryl McGrath

“The monitoring program [both statewide and nationwide] is really the backbone of the air quality and management program for the state and the country,” Driscoll says. In New York, he notes, the long history of monitoring acid rain is important for another reason: The state has an extremely dense network of waterways.

From the hundreds of lakes, ponds, streams and rivers in the Adirondacks—some of them so remote that we may never know the exact total—to the presence of three major rivers in the state—the St. Lawrence, the Mohawk and the Hudson—it’s safe to say that everything is connected in the state’s waterways. It would not be impossible for a bottle of household cleaner that someone carelessly poured down a storm drain in Canton to eventually work its way through the state’s waterways and end up in the New York harbor, in greatly diluted form, but also in combination with thousands of other contaminants.

Driscoll hopes that with a little more national support for acid deposition monitoring, the state can increase its focus on other types of monitoring, such as soil quality and mercury contamination. The state is conducting some soil and water surveys, according to the DEC, but in fewer numbers than the air quality monitors. From Driscoll’s perspective, it’s not enough.

“We have a very poor program for monitoring soil quality,” Driscoll says. “We don’t have a really good program for monitoring mercury.”

Much of what we do know about mercury in large animals and top predators comes from years of research into the Common Loon, and the findings so far should give pause to human beings, which are also top predators who consume mercury with their food. In 2008, a team of 17 scientists representing 10 private and public wildlife conservation agencies or organizations released the results of a long-term study of the effects of environmental mercury on Common Loons in the Northeast. The cooperating organizations included Biodiversity Research Institute; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program, and the authors included Dr. Nina Schoch, a veterinarian and conservation scientist based in the Adirondacks but who works for the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine, a private environmental research organization. Among the findings: Common Loons with high levels of mercury are poor parents who spend less time caring for their eggs and chicks and whose young tend to die in larger numbers because the parent birds simply aren’t paying as much attention to their nests and babies.

 

As long as human beings keep thinking up new chemicals to dump into the environment, there will be plenty of work for the agencies and scientists who engage in monitoring those contaminants. What’s going to be the “next big thing” in monitoring? Very likely the stuff you may be rinsing down your kitchen sink every time you reach for the pump dispenser of hand soap in your own home. The antibacterial agent that the household-cleaner industry likes to tout for more effective hand washing is called triclosan. Triclosan started out as a surgical scrub in hospitals, and now it’s in dozens of common consumer products—dish detergent, hand lotion, liquid hand soap and even toothpaste. And if we’re using it, it’s ending up not only in our bodies, but in our waterways.

“I think we have much better regulations governing the sort of ‘legacy chemicals,’” says Anne Secord, branch chief for environmental contaminants in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field office in Cortland. “What I’m worried about are the newer chemicals that are coming out and aren’t getting any attention. There are all these chemicals out there and there’s not enough money or time to explore the effects of all of them once they get into the environment.”