Sue Capone was a young biologist in 1984 when, amid a growing environmental crisis, she started work at the Adirondack Lake Survey Corporation in upstate New York. The corporation had recently been formed to study how seriously acid rain was affecting sensitive lakes and ponds in the mountains. It was her job to measure just how bad things were.
Capone found many lakes were crystal clear. They were beautiful to look at, but a sign that things were very wrong: Acid rain had killed just about anything living in the water, including the fish.
For 30 years now, Capone has been driving, hiking, and flying to dozens of mountain lakes to collect vials of water to take back to the lab for analysis. And she’s surprised at how fast things have turned around. “Some of the classic, clear waters from the acid days are starting to look more cloudy,” she says. “That’s a very good sign.”
pH levels, a measure of acidity, are improving. Now, when the state stocks fish in many lakes, they survive, and even thrive, to the joy of fishermen who found the 1970s and ’80s depressing. It’s a remarkable turnaround in since acid rain’s discovery in the U.S. by a young professor at Dartmouth College named Gene Likens, just a half century ago.
“It was a great surprise,” Likens said. “It was one of those ‘a ha!’ moments.”
At the time, Likens and his colleagues were beginning a project to measure the health of a New Hampshire forest. It was like taking the vital signs of a patient, trying to get a baseline of health. Then, it rained, and he was shocked to find the rainfall’s acidity was closer to vinegar than pure water.
“We didn’t know how acid rain should be,” he says. “We certainly weren’t thinking about acid rain.”
This was about to become his life’s work. It would be nearly another decade before he would help popularize the term “acid rain” in his first academic paper. There was a lot of work to be done first.
Foremost, he had to figure out rain’s normal pH levels. This was no easy task. He and some colleagues traveled to some of the most remote places on Earth, like the southern tips of South America and Africa, to measure rain as unadulterated by human activity as possible.
Their hunch was right. The rain falling in New Hampshire was way too acidic, and was well on its way to killing forests and lakes. He had another hunch: coal-powered power plants in the Midwest were the culprit, but he would need solid proof. Utility owners were skeptical.
Electric companies would tell him, “No, it’s not going up my smokestack! No! What went up my smokestack didn’t come down on your forest in New Hampshire,” he said.
His team’s first attempt at proving a connection between power plant emissions and acid rain was simultaneously rudimentary and ambitious. They’d follow smokestack plumes in small planes to see where they ended up. Before long, they developed more sophisticated tracer chemicals that proved the hypothesis.
Coal-fired power plants in the Midwest were emitting millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. The pollutants then blew east, falling as acid rain on the ecosystems of states like New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
With the evidence in by 1972, Likens was ready to tell the world in his first academic paper on the subject.
“We thought long and hard about what the title should be,” he says. In the end, they went with “Acid rain,” which turned out to be a brilliant label. It clicked with the public.
“The idea that you could sing in the rain, walk in the rain, and then the rain was acid, really grabbed people,” he said. “It had that impact. Branding, if you will.”
A couple of years later, with another paper on the way, acid rain was now big news, featured on the front page of major newspapers. Likens became a celebrity among his peers.
“I had phone calls from literally all over the world. Scientists saying, ‘What is going on? What is all this about?'”
Hundreds then joined the research effort, and by the 1980s, acid rain was a mainstream issue. Schoolchildren wrote papers about it. The PBS series NOVA devoted an hour to the crisis. It was the environmental crisis du jour, even ending up in “Captain Planet,” the kids’ cartoon.
Despite the public awareness, acid rain also felt intractable. Even with mounting evidence, politicians procrastinated by ordering more studies. And, even if there had been political will to solve acid rain, there was no guarantee that environmentalists and industry could get on the same page.
That was the state of affairs until the 1988 election, which placed in power politicians with serious interest in doing something about acid rain.
“It was like all the planets aligning,” said Brian McLean, then with the Environmental Protection Agency. He was one player in a surprising group who worked together to get a new Clean Air Act proposed, written and enacted in mere months.
“The political, the interest groups, industry, environmentalists, and particularly political leadership coming together at an unusual time,” McLean said.
The first big thing that happened: George H.W. Bush became president. Much more than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, Bush wanted to prove a Republican leader could be serious about the environment. He ran on the issue.
At the same time, there was a big shift among Democrats. George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine, replaced Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, as majority leader. In that era, environmental politics was much more divided by geography than party. Maine was a victim of acid rain, caused in part by West Virginia coal.
So, with new politicians in charge, Boyden Gray on Bush’s transition team called a meeting at the White House. Among those there was Dan Dudek of the Environmental Defense Fund. He was also an economist.
President Bush, Dudek said, “wanted to make good on his promise of being the environmental president. We said ‘Hey! solve the acid rain problem! That will certainly quiet the critics.'”
Gray tells the story a little differently. “Well, we were already focused on acid rain, so I don’t know if they tipped the balance on that,” he said.
Either way, the environmental crisis was now a top priority.
Dudek had an idea he thought might just bring together Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry. He pitched it to Gray at that meeting.
“You can do it in a novel way,” Dudek said. “Set up a market.”
Gray said it was that idea, a market approach, that “broke the logjam.” Here, an environmental group was behind the kind of idea a Republican could get behind.
The idea was this: The government sets a limit on the amount of sulfur dioxide that can be released in a year. Power companies are told how much they can emit. It’s up to them to decide how to get to those lower levels—maybe install scrubbers or switch to a a different kind of coal. If they cut more than their allowance, they could sell the excess to a power company struggling to meet its limit. It became known as: cap and trade.
It wasn’t the kind of idea power companies were used to hearing from government. Gary Hart was with the big utility Southern Company at the time, and he first heard about it at a coal conference.
“And, I kind of casually walked over to the office after the conference and said, guys, you won’t believe what I just heard,” Hart recalled.
Southern Company, like many utilities, was initially fiercely opposed. It was fear of the unknown, he said.
But behind the scenes, Hart and his team watched the bills’ drafts closely, calculating how much each would cost the company.
Meanwhile, Brian McLean at EPA was writing the White House’s plan as fast as possible.
“That’s all I did for five or six months, day and night, we worked on these things,” McLean remembered. “We got it up there. I remember the first day we were outside and there was sun. I hadn’t seen the sun in that many months.”
It was July 1989. President Bush gathered members of Congress to the Rose Garden to unveil his proposed new Clean Air Act. By 1990, it was law.
And, it worked, better than even many supporters predicted. Some companies overcorrected so they could make money selling allowances. Emissions fell faster and more cheaply than planned.
The act called for emissions to be reduced by half. But today, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions are down more than 70 percent.
In the end, the program won over environmentalists who thought it was too lenient on industry, and an industry that expected it to be expensive.
And, Gary Hart said, it worked partly because all the sides more or less got along.
“People who you thought would be natural enemies like Southern Company and EPA, we were working together because we wanted it to work,” he said.
That’s not to say acid rain is completely solved. Forest ecosystems will take far longer to recover than lakes.
But with years of improvement, Karen Roy, the head of the Adirondack Long Term Monitoring Program, is thinking of scaling back the collection of lake samples. A basement conference room was nicknamed “the war room” in the 1980s. A map of the region still covers one wall, with pins in the lakes the team has analyzed the past three decades. Some of the pins have fallen out as the crisis abated.
“Would I have predicted we could have turned this around as a nation? No, I would not,” Roy says. “Too many other things seemed to get in the way.”