Fall Foliage and Acid Rain in Pennsylvania: Where Have All the Colors Gone? Asks the Clean `Em Up Campaign

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Hotline, Fall 1999

GASP has been participating with a statewide coalition to reduce pollution from the many older fossil-fueled power plants in Pennsylvania. The coalition is called the “Clean Em Up Campaign” but other states have similar campaigns with a variety of slogans such as “Dirty Dinosaurs” in Florida and “Southern Fried Air” in Georgia.

Why so much interest in old power plants? Because the electricity industry is the single largest source of industrial pollution in the United States and the older plants are permitted to pollute at rates 4 to 10 times higher than similar new plants. For example, nationwide power plants emit 30% of smog and acid rain producing nitrogen oxides. Of that 30%, approximately 72% is emitted by the older plants. Sixty six percent of sulfur dioxide, the other contributor to acid rain formation, is also produced by power plants, predominantly by the older plants.

The campaign recently looked into the effects of acid rain in Pennsylvania and found some alarming results as is reported in the following story put out by the campaign.

POTTER COUNTY, Pa., Oct. 7– People traveling across Pennsylvania in search of autumn foliage may be surprised by what they see – and what they don’t see. Increasingly, travelers looking for hillsides full of bright leaves of healthy trees will instead find large sections of brown stumps of dead, leafless trees.

According to a recent publication by Penn State, The Effects of Acidic Deposition on Pennsylvania’s Forests, acid rain has damaged and destroyed many of our state’s trees, leaving large expanses of Pennsylvania’s forests dying. As the book’s editor, hydrologist Bill Sharpe of Penn State’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Resources Research Institute, points out, “Hundreds of thousands of acres are affected by acid rain here in Pennsylvania, with the trees that give us the bright fall foliage among the hardest hit. Unless we get the acid rain problem under control, we will lose more and more trees.”

Sharpe demonstrated the problem recently in a stand of sugar maples in the Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County, PA. “These trees will not have normal fall color because the leaves are already stressed by the loss of necessary nutrients. The acid rain has pulled calcium and magnesium from the soil, so the leaves are very small, and many are turning brown and dying. The leaves actually began dying early in the summer, so they won’t develop full fall color as a result. In this particular area, about 90% of the sugar maples are dead or dying from acid rain.

“While many will think the trees are damaged simply because of this summer’s drought, that’s not the case,” continued Sharpe. “The trees were already in trouble due to the acid rain stealing their nutrients. Drought stresses come and go, and they are an additional problem for the trees. But the combination of the damage from the acid rain and the drought brought a huge problem for the trees – much worse than either problem alone. If the acid rain problem hadn’t already hurt these trees, the effect of the drought wouldn’t have been nearly as bad.”

The largest industrial cause of acid rain is emissions from old, outdated coal-fired electricity generation plants. These plants spew sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide out their tall smokestacks, where it mixes with water vapor to form acid. The wind carries it from the plants eastward, where it falls as acid rain.

“Pennsylvania is ground zero for acid rain,” said Nancy Parks, Air Quality Chair for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, who joined Sharpe at the State Forest demonstration. “We have the most acidic rain in the U.S. – thanks mostly to the antiquated and dirty coal-fired power plants in Western Pennsylvania and in states to our west. Pennsylvania’s dirty power plants belched over 1 million pounds of sulfur dioxide into our air in 1997, with most of this coming from eight specific power plants. And Ohio’s plants are even worse. All of these emissions travel into the Pennsylvania forests, depositing acid rain and killing our trees.

“This isn’t a difficult problem to fix,” continued Parks, “but we must have the political will to fix it. Newer power plants aren’t as dirty as these old power plants, and the same technology the new plants use can be used everywhere. We must demand that our state and federal governments force the old plants to meet modern standards – or we can say goodbye to our beautiful fall foliage.”

Cleaning up the dirty power plants is the simplest, most cost-effective way to take the biggest bite out of acid rain and other serious air pollution. Cleaning up the eight dirtiest Pennsylvania plants would reduce smog-causing pollution equal to taking more than 5.5 million cars off the road.

Participating groups in the campaign are: Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Clean Air Council, Group Against Smog and Pollution, Pennsylvania Public Interest Group, Sierra Club-Pennsylvania Chapter.