Is the Clean Air Act Working?

January, 2007

Do federal laws really work to reduce acid rain in northeast lakes? Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment and partnering researchers have been chosen to help find the answer through a $1.1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The five-year grant, one of the largest ever received by PSU, will fund collecting and analyzing lake samples from Maine to the Adirondacks to gauge whether the Clean Air Act has helped reduce the effects of acid rain on northeast surface waters.

“Over the last decade, surface water chemistry data has played an important role in assessing ecological response to Clean Air Act programs, such as the Acid Rain Program,” said Brian McLean, director of the EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs. “As we move forward with implementing new programs, such as the Clean Air Interstate Rule, these data will be invaluable in helping us to understand whether we are adequately protecting sensitive ecosystems.”

CFE Director Steve Kahl has studied acid rain in New England’s surface waters for more than 25 years. The EPA grant will be instrumental in continuing this research to shed important light on the health of invaluable natural resources and whether current laws are effective in protecting them.

“The importance of the work relates directly to the federal Clean Air Act and future amendments in Congress,” Kahl said. “The key questions are: do reductions in acid-forming emissions from power plants and vehicles result in reductions in acid rain; and if so, do these reductions in acid rain result in less acidity in lakes? The answers to these questions will provide information for the EPA to assess the need for future reductions in atmospheric deposition.”

Researchers will also collect samples from high elevation lakes in Maine, and plan to sample high elevation lakes in New Hampshire. These are the “canary” lakes that are most responsive to acid rain.

The grant will help fund the new regional lake chemistry laboratory at PSU, being developed in partnership with the state Department of Environmental Services to assist lake associations and other management groups with environmental data. Adam Baumann, a graduate student in PSU’s Environmental Science and Policy master’s degree program, is conducting thesis research on the topic.

Bill McDowell, director of the Water Resources Research Center at UNH, is a co-principal investigator on the grant and his laboratory will conduct some of the sample analyses. The grant also funds researchers at the University of Maine and Dartmouth College evaluating long-term changes in biological communities by analyzing changes in zooplankton over the past 20 years.—Bruce Lyndes

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