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Whiteface smog

As a gondola takes skiers up Whiteface Mountain in April, an atmospheric monitoring center can be seen atop the summit, which is the fifth highest in New York state. Ozone levels have recently been reported as unusually high for this time of year in the area. The EPA must take immediate action regarding these concerns. 

A sensor that measures ground-level ozone on Whiteface Mountain found unsafe levels of ozone at Whiteface Lodge one day this May.

“It’s shocking,” said John Sheehan, director of communications for the Adirondack Council. “We don’t expect to have to deal with this in the Adirondacks. It’s a testament to the fact that the 40 dirtiest power plants in the country continue polluting unabated.”

Sheehan reported that an air-pollution monitor on Whiteface Mountain logged a “bad air day” already once this May, when ground-level ozone was measured above safe levels.

“We saw Whiteface go out of compliance for over eight hours,” said Sheehan. “That represents significant smog. It’s unusual for it to happen in the Adirondacks at all, and even more unusual for it to happen this early in the year.”

The findings add impetus to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of plaintiffs and the Adirondack Council against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, for refusing to order the nation’s 36 dirtiest coal-fired power plants to turn on their already-installed pollution controls.

While New York state has closed all but two of its coal-burning plants, pollution from similar plants in the Midwest travels here on the upper layers of air.

“What we’re asking is not unreasonable,” said Sheehan. “We’ve already done it ourselves.”

The lawsuit is joined by the state of Maryland, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund, and echoes a similar suit filed by the attorneys general of New York, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, the District of Columbia and the city of Chicago.

Pruitt, a former attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 14 times in that capacity and is widely seen as an ally of the fossil fuel industry. He has admitted to wanting to dismantle the agency he now heads. Plaintiffs say Pruitt’s strategy is to delay action, ignore petitions and even circumvent federal laws.

Last fall, the Trump administration announced its intent to repeal the federal Clean Power Plan, which would have cut acid rain by 10 to 12 percent by forcing Midwest coal plants to meet emissions requirements. However, federal rules require that the CPP cannot be repealed without something to replace it, so the plan remains in limbo.

The lawsuits against Pruitt and the EPA allege that the agency is ignoring its legal obligation to apply clean air standards that protect the public health.

Smokestack devices that would reduce acid rain have already been installed in Midwest coal plants, which are the source of the smog rolling over Whiteface and other Adirondack peaks.

“All the ozone is being transported from other states,” said Sheehan. He explained that at lower elevations, air is more local. “At 3 to 4,000 feet it’s far worse than if you’re standing on the street in Lake Placid at 2,500 feet. But if you climb Algonquin, your lungs are going to be feeling it on top.

“We’re concerned it’s affecting hikers’ health.”

The measuring station at Whiteface is the only one in the Adirondacks, said Sheehan. “If Whiteface isn’t experiencing it and other peaks are, we won’t know because it’s not being recorded.”

In addition to the dangers of ozone, which causes respiratory problems from coughing to asthma, nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants are a significant source of acid rain. Acid rain has been an issue for the Adirondacks for many years, but Sheehan said the addition of smog is an alarming development.

The smokestack devices on Midwest coal plants, called electrostatic precipitators, use an electrical charge to precipitate particles. That would prevent pollutants from rising into the air, where they can travel in upper layers of air that move eastward and drop those pollutants when they meet cooler temperatures, such as those in the Adirondack High Peaks. The devices could prevent as many as 400,000 annual smog-induced asthma attacks and tens of thousands of premature deaths in the Northeast, according to the EPA’s own research.

“It’s a real human health impact,” said Sheehan. “Acid rain shouldn’t even be falling at all. If the Midwest did what New York has already done, we wouldn’t have acid rain.”

Surveys conducted in the 1980s and 1990s showed 25 percent of the Adirondack Park’s 2,800 largest water bodies had been acidified to the point where native fish couldn’t survive. High-elevation forests died away on summit slopes, soils became depleted of calcium, and toxic metals such as mercury contaminated the food chain.

The Adirondack Council filed a notice of intent to sue one year ago, then filed a lawsuit in October 2017.

“Essentially, this is negligence on the part of the EPA,” said Sheehan.

“The power companies have not proved that these pollution controls have a significant effect on their bottom line,” he continued. “When they’ve been pressed to produce evidence that it’s too expensive, they’ve come up with nothing. It’s pennies on the dollar.”

Advocates for stricter air pollution controls argue that the energy produced by coal-burning plants is only cost-effective for investors because the plants’ effect on the public health is borne by the taxpayers. A fact sheet published by the EPA in 2015, states: “An ozone standard of 70 parts per billion has public health benefits worth an estimated $2.9 to 5.9 billion. These benefits outweigh the costs, estimated at $1.4 billion.”

Sheehan said, “What will happen is, more people will get sick and die in the Northeast, just to save a few bucks for people in Ohio.”

In an emailed statement, northern New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, said Obama had circumvented Congress with the Clean Power Plan.

“When Congress is circumvented in the process, the policy can easily be undone from one Administration to the other. Congress, not federal bureaucrats, should set our national energy policy.”

According to her press officer, Tom Flanagin, “Stefanik believes climate change is a serious threat that must be addressed in economically viable ways, which is why she is the author of the House Republican Climate Resolution that calls for using American innovation to improve environmental stewardship.

“She believes it’s common sense that already-installed technology should be used to reduce emissions, especially in light of the ozone reading at Whiteface; however, since this is agency policy and not law, we will hold comment until we have a chance to review the court’s decision on that lawsuit.”

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