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Due to the high concentration of coal burning power plants and industrial factories in the American Midwest and Ohio valley region (along with the generally eastward movement of weather in the United States) one of the areas most affected by acid rain is in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States. We have a situation where a large amount of acid rain created in the industrial center of the country is being dumped on the northern edge of the Appalachian mountain range, home to many species of trout and other fish. Acid rain has the ability to acidify rainwater down to a pH of 4.0, and thus increase the acidity of the lakes into which the rain falls to much the same degree. At around a pH of 4.5 all fish (and most other animals as well) in a lake will die . It quickly becomes clear why acid rain is not a benign problem, America’s large Northeastern freshwater fishing industry (as well as the market for fishing-based tourism) could be wiped out rather easily, and indeed the signs of such a decimation have already shown themselves.

15 years ago the famed trout fishing haven of St. Mary’s River was struck by a sudden and catastrophic loss of brook trout and other aquatic life. St. Mary’s River was one of the premiere sport fishing areas in western Virginia, and so its loss meant a huge decline in revenue for those who made their living off sport fishing, not to mention the loss of a hobby for fishermen who frequented St. Mary’s. At first it was thought that the river had fallen prey to pollutants dumped into the water somewhere upstream, but through testing and analysis it was found that the famous waters had been poisoned from above by acid rain . The fish were unable to adapt quickly enough to the harsh environment and were killed off, and as it was late found this same sort of thing had taken place in many other locations around the state as well.

In a study conducted by the environmental sciences department at the University of Virginia it was found that the number of streams in Virginia’s mountains containing brook trout had decreased 60% since 1900. At the turn of the century 82% of the streams contained brook trout, while today only half of the streams contain the fish . The researchers concluded that the cause for this dramatic decline was acid rain from the other side of the Appalachians in the Ohio River Valley. In addition, a study done in 2000 by the Virginia Trout Stream Sensitivity Study showed that out of the 58 Virginia streams monitored for acid levels only 15 showed a decrease in acidity over a 12-year time-span . We can infer that all the other streams either stayed at the same level or continued to rise in acidity. This is not promising news, but there are causes for it.

The reason that the Virginia brook trout are so vulnerable to the acid rain is a consequence of both the rate at which the acidity is being introduced and the inability of the streams to neutralize said acid fast enough. All brooks and streams have a built-in “Acid Neutralization Capacity” (ANC), which is a function of the composition of the stream bed. This ANC is part of the complex balance in the creek ecosystem, when the naturally slightly acidic rain (before pollution) would fall, the ANC would provide a temporary buffer to neutralize the bursts of acidity. However, due to the constant assault of acidity created by the ultra-acidic rain today, the ANC has become overwhelmed and has exhausted it’s supply of “antacids” (the ANC is sometimes called the ‘Tums effect’). The result is a dramatic and unchecked rise in acid levels in streams .

At the St. Mary’s River site we can see that some effort is being made to intervene and create an artificial ‘Tums effect’ through “liming” the river bed. Two professors at James Madison University run the program, which aims to increase the pH level of St. Mary’s River by pouring lime (a base) into the water . They hope that this will replace the ravaged natural ANC of St. Mary’s River, and eventually allow either the migration of trout back into the river or a successful re-introduction program. However, should we really have to rely on artificial means to take care of our natural habitats? While I’m sure everyone would applaud the efforts of these men, should a liming project after the fact be necessary? Of course not, the acid rain should be stopped at its source, the factories and power plants pumping the sulfur dioxide and nitrates into the air.

So has any progress been made in recent times to combat the sources of acid rain? Yes and no: where appropriately strict regulations have been implemented there have been results, but there is still a great deal of room for improvement. The Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 to include provisions meant to cut down on the chemicals that caused acid rain . There were positive results from this, sulfur emissions decreased by 17% during the 1990’s, and the actual deposition of that sulfur on the East Coast declined 26% during the same period. So the regulations placed on industries and power plants have done some tangible good. However, the nitrogen oxide emissions were not regulated as strictly, and consequentially the presence of those pollutants actually rose in the lakes of New York by 2%, while the presence of nitrates increased an astonishing 48% in the same area . The point should be clear that if we wish to protect our lakes, our forests, and our wildlife more regulation is needed. Industry had the longest period of economic growth in the history of the United States during the 1990’s while the Clean Air Act regulations were in place, so any argument having to do with regulations having an overtly detrimental effect on the economy should be dismissed. We in the United States are in the lucky position of being able to protect the environment and our natural parklands and wildlife without destroying our economy, and we have no excuse to not do so.