It was great news for the Adirondacks, and the eastern U.S. in general, that the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's rule to make Midwestern power plants do what they should have been doing since the Clean Air Act of 1990 - clean up their act.
The Adirondacks have long suffered from an acid rain epidemic caused by these plants' sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide fumes. Many high-elevation spruce and fir forests were destroyed, and federal research showed that more than 700 lakes and ponds in the Park - more than a quarter of them - had become too acidic to support their native life by 1990. If not for the Clean Air Act and subsequent regulations, acid rain might have wiped out brook trout, the Park's iconic native fish.
Gains have been made since then, but the pollution is still enough to be a problem and the polluters clearly haven't done all they can to stop it.
While Adirondack waterways and forests are on the rebound from acid rain, many fish still contain mercury from Midwestern plant emissions, and the state Department of Health continues to recommend against eating even small quantities of certain fish caught here. This is not an environment-vs.-economy issue. Fishing tourism is a huge part of the economy in the Adirondacks, and if companies wipe out fish by the pond-full and make it so anglers can't eat their catch, they're not just killing animals and plants they may not care about (although we do); they're killing jobs.
Elsewhere on the East Coast, particulates and other aspects of the Midwest pollution have worsened smog and led to more asthma and other lung concerns.
These plants' defenders say President Obama's administration has used the EPA to wage a "war on coal," supposedly forcing the shutdown of aging, coal-fired power plants to enable solar and wind power. It might be OK to pivot into an energy policy debate if the amount of air pollution wasn't so massive and so damaging, but it is. That's undeniable. The victims of that dumping deserve justice, and trying to politicize this is simply a dodge.
We're not talking about the kind of fuel that goes into these power plants; the issue here is the air pollution coming out. Coal-fired plants can be clean enough with things like smokestack air "scrubbers," and these companies have had 24 years since the Clean Air Act, the intent of which was to phase out the dirtiest plants. Instead, however, many companies found a loophole by hybridizing old plants.
Critics also say EPA rules drive up electric prices for consumers, since the power companies will pass their expenses down. But what about all the other industries with safety standards to meet? Right now, a big reason coal-fired power is often cheaper than cleaner electricity sources is because it's been allowed to get away with not fully dealing with a serious public health hazard. It's another way for companies in America to socialize risks while privatizing gains.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan, an advocate against acid rain since the 1980s, said this Supreme Court decision "is something we'll all see as the beginning of the end for this problem in the Adirondacks." We hope so. It should permanently seal the concept that the federal government has authority to regulate serious interstate air pollution. If the court had gone the other way, it may well have led to a reversion: more pollution and less corporate responsibility for the consequences of actions.
In the end, this comes down to a childishly simple truism: It's not fair to dump your garbage on other people.