Stakeholders in the Adirondack Park are concerned environmental safeguards will be rolled back under the presidential administration of Donald J. Trump, who will take office Jan. 20. Trump is pictured here in Plattsburgh on April 15, 2016.
ELIZABETHTOWN — With just weeks until president-elect Donald Trump takes office, environmental groups in the Adirondack Park are expressing concerns over an administration they fear may be hostile to the environment.
Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, has said he wants to eliminate federal environmental regulations and reduce the size and scope of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Federal regulations administered by the agency have resulted in significant reductions in the air pollution that causes acid rain in the Adirondack Park, more than 80 percent of which is generated from out-of-state.
The roots of recovery stretch back to 1990, when amendments to the Clean Air Act started a cap and trade program for emissions. Since then, depleted fish populations and damaged forests have been resurrected across the region.
The president-elect, who takes office Jan. 20, tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, an organization he has spent years fighting.
His oversight, said the Adirondack Council, could reverse decades of recovery.
“If acid rain makes a comeback during the Trump Administration, we will lose this newfound protection and everything will start getting worse again,” said Executive Director Willie Janeway. “That would be tragic.”
Pruitt, who is involved in numerous lawsuits seeking to reverse environmental regulations in the oil-rich state of Oklahoma, indicated he would overturn one of President Obama’s leading environmental legacies — the Clean Power Plan, which establishes goals for reducing carbon emissions through a national trading system.
While that legislation is aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it has the side effect of further reducing the emissions that cause acid rain, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
But the program, said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, has been vilified by the incoming Trump Administration despite being “incredibly successful by using the power of the free market for positive environmental change.”
“To abandon the Clean Power Plan not only fails to confront climate change, but imperils Adirondack waters and forests by endangering the ecological recovery that has been hard won over the past 30 years,” Bauer said.
A STORY OF A LAKE
For the past 25 years, most Adirondack lakes have seen recovery from pollutants carried over by coal-burning power plants in the Midwest.
Some that were once considered dead are again producing healthy brook trout.
By 1969, Silver Lake in Hamilton County was determined to be fishless by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Brook trout cannot thrive in acidic waters, and decreases in pH levels lead to subsequent damages to the ecosystem.
Below 5.0, most life struggles to survive. But due to the combined effects of the new federal acid rain program and better enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the lake’s pH levels had risen to almost 6.0 by 2002.
That was good enough for the DEC to launch an experimental stocking program for native Adirondack Windfall strain brook trout, said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
Pollution continued to decline under the new National Ambient Air Quality Standards — also known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule — and the lake continued to recover.
In May 2013, Richard Beauchamp caught a six-pound, 22 inch brook trout there — a new state record.
Another shining example of recovery is Honnedaga Lake in Herkimer County. Until just recently, the lake’s strain of brook trout was thought to be extinct, Sheehan said. But signs of reversal are underway, and local residents are again reporting large catches.
Others lakes and ponds, said the Adirondack Council, need further reductions in upwind emissions, and time, to regain their vitality.
A recent study published in the journal Global Change Biology revealed these protections are, in turn, helping to protect fish from climate change.
It all has to do with how much sunlight reaches the lake bottom.
“A lake that is severely damaged by acid rain looks clear as gin,” said Janeway. “Almost everything in it is dead. This research team found that lakes with clear water heat up faster than healthy lakes.”
Suspended organic material in these lakes blocks sunlight from reaching the bottom of deeper waters. Doing so keeps intact a layer of cooler water that fish need to survive.
This added layer of protection, Janeway said, will be critical as warming summer temperatures threaten the survival of cold-water species such as brook trout.
“This is a perfect example of why we can’t go backwards on acid rain and air pollution,” Janeway said.
Zooming outward, green groups are also concerned about the broader implications of an administration unfriendly to environmental safeguards.
The Adirondack Park is already seeing impacts from climate change far beyond this winter’s on-off snow-rain cycle, Bauer said.
“We’re already living in a new Adirondack climate where it’s as likely to snow as rain in the winter months.”
If the Trump Administration abandons plans to confront climate change, Bauer said, it will do nothing to help confront the other major impacts of climate change — like more intense storms, for instance.
Total rainfall and the number of intense storms have increased considerably in the Adirondacks in the past 25 years.
“With the Trump Administration, we’ll have to sort through the wreckage of each storm knowing that there’s both no end in sight and no hope for change,” Bauer said.
The U.S. has a role as a world leader on climate change, he said, and pulling out of the Paris Accord will curb international progress.
“We’re also very concerned that a new Supreme Court appointment, or two or three, will also be hostile to environmental protections, locking in a pollution-friendly Supreme Court for the next 20-30 years,” Bauer said.
While the details on Trump’s environmental policy are still emerging, the businessman does not appear to be a fan of the EPA.
“For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn,” said Trump in a statement following Pruitt’s nomination last month.
Pruitt, according to the Washington Post, said: “The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.”
Senate confirmation hearings for Pruitt are scheduled to begin this month.
With a Republican-led body, it may be tough to derail Pruitt’s nomination. But, as the Washington Post reported last week, the Oklahoma attorney general is among the eight cabinet nominees Democratic senators plan to aggressively target.
The Democratic caucus plans on pushing to stretch their confirmation votes into March, which would be an unprecedented break with Senate tradition, the newspaper reported.
Both of New York’s senators have indicated they will challenge Pruitt’s nomination.
“It’s irresponsible to support an #EPA nominee who puts polluters over clear water & air for the American people,” wrote Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), now Senate Minority Leader, on Twitter last month. “I oppose #PollutingPruitt.”
Later, he added in a statement: “President-elect Trump is attempting to fill his rigged cabinet with nominees that would break key campaign promises and have made billions off the industries they’d be tasked with regulating.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), too, isn’t giving the nominee a blank check.
A spokesman told Bloomberg, “Senator Gillibrand has very serious concerns about Scott Pruitt’s record, particularly on climate change, and she will be asking him to address those concerns during the upcoming confirmation hearings.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro) has come under fire by green groups for her 2015 vote against carbon limits for power plants.
“I have concerns with the lack of enforcement with other developing countries around the world,” Stefanik said at a debate in Plattsburgh, citing China and India. “We need to ensure that they’re also pursuing environmentally-friendly policies.”
Asked how Pruitt’s record, including his attempt to overturn environmental regulations in Oklahoma, would bode for environmental safeguards in the Adirondack Park, a spokesman for the lawmaker said the Senate will have the opportunity to advise and consent on Trump’s nominations.
“Congresswoman Stefanik has a strong, bipartisan record of working on environmental issues that are critical to New York’s 21st District, including climate change, combating invasive species and protecting our parks,” said Tom Flanagin. “She was pleased to receive the ‘Supporter of Nature’ Award from the Nature Conservancy last Congress. Congresswoman Stefanik believes it’s important for President-elect Trump’s nominees to go through the confirmation process so that we can hear their views and ideas on critical issues. Congresswoman Stefanik will continue to be an independent voice in Congress.”
At the state level, Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) said he preferred to wait until specific federal proposals are offered before speculating on what Pruitt’s nomination might look like for the region.
“I don’t want to imagine hypotheticals,” said Stec, the Ranking Member on the Environmental Conservation Committee, adding that EPA leadership is a federal issue.
But, he added: “I think we need to strike balance between the environment and the economy everywhere in the world.”
ON THE GROUND
At least one local grassroots group is mobilizing as a local counterweight against potential changes at the federal level.
Formed in the aftermath of November’s election, Saranac Lake-based political action group Now What? said they have seen an uptick in concern from local residents on environmental issues.
The group plans on being a steady local voice in the debate and participated in the Day of Denial on Monday, a nationwide effort to protest Trump’s nominees, including Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO tapped to lead the State Department; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) for Department of Interior.
They also are engaged in a letter-writing campaign to Schumer and Gillibrand.
Chief among their concerns is the new administration’s promotion of energy policy that encourages further oil and natural gas exploration in the U.S.
The coalition doesn’t see a commitment to green energy on the table, which is cause for alarm.
“Clean energy is a job creator and that’s been demonstrated in the North Country,” said Emily Martz, a co-founder, citing the solarization efforts that have taken root in the region, including the launch of a new sales office in Keene.
Pete Benson, a co-founder, said the green energy industry is growing because of investments and prioritizing at the federal and state level, including programs like Solarize Tri-Lakes.
“I’m not sure how oil exploration in Utah will bring jobs and a sustainable environment to the Adirondack Park,” Benson said. “Clean energy is the future of North Country.”