Acid rain ruling praised in Adirondacks

Environmentalists and state officials praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday that gives the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to limit smokestack emissions in Midwestern power plants.

“This is an historic day for the Park’s struggle against acid rain,” said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council and a longtime advocate against these power plants causing acid rain in the Adirondacks. “This is something we’ll all see as the beginning of the end for this problem in the Adirondacks. In many ways, it’s a dream come true for me. If you told me when I first started with the Council it would take 23 years to get here, I would be pretty discouraged, but looking back on it, there was an awful lot that had to happen in order for us to get here.”

The court decided, by a vote of 6-2, to uphold a rule adopted by the EPA in 2011 that would force polluting states to reduce smokestack emissions that contaminate the air in downwind states. Power companies and several states sued to block the rule, and a federal appeals court in Washington agreed with them in 2012.

Acid rain has been a problem in the Adirondacks for decades. According to the Adirondack Council, federal research showed that more than 700 Adirondack lakes and ponds had become too acidic to support their native life by 1990. Many high-elevation spruce and fir forests had been destroyed.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 helped to reduce that impact, but pollution has continued to damage the environment.

Acid rain changes water and soil chemistry, killing fish and forests, and power plant emissions also contaminate the food chain with mercury. Many Adirondack fish still contain mercury, and the state Department of Health continues to recommend against eating even small quantities of certain fish caught here.

The pollution that causes acid rain with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides also causes smog and contains fine particles that harm lungs and other organs.

The harmful effects of this pollution on both environmental and human health led the state to get involved.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman led a coalition of nine states, the District of Columbia and five cities in filing briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of EPA’s rule. In 2012, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit invalidated the rule. The coalition, led by Schneiderman, successfully urged the Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today reinstates a sensible EPA rule that will help stem the tide of interstate air pollution – soot and smog – blowing into New York, which will help protect our health and environment from harmful pollutants,” Schneiderman said in a press release. “These pollutants travel into New York from out-of-state sources – mainly power plants. The court’s decision recognizes that each state has the responsibility to prevent pollution from harming the air quality of its neighbors, and that the EPA must step in if necessary to ensure that obligation is met.”

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens also praised the decision in a written statement.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision upholding the Cross State Air Pollution Rule will lead to cleaner air in New York,” he said. “Our strategies to reduce emissions from power plants, factories, vehicles and other sources over the past decade have led to cleaner air across New York State. Yet pollution continues to blow in from out-of-state sources. Today’s decision will require polluting upwind sources to do their share, providing New Yorkers with cleaner, healthier air and helping to level the playing field for New York businesses.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.