Acid precipitation in wilderness topic of forum

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— Scientists studying the effects of acid precipitation in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area will be in Steamboat Springs Sept. 19 to discuss the anticipated benefits of new pollution-control devices on coal-fired power plants in the Yampa Valley.

A major retrofit of the Hayden Station power plant was completed in January 2000. And officials of Tri-State Generation and Transmission power plant and the attorneys for the Sierra Club recently announced a settlement that will result in similar efforts being undertaken at the power plant near Craig next summer.

Routt County Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf told the county commissioners he expects the meeting room to be packed next week.

"The reason for the meeting is to discuss pollution-control efforts at the Hayden and Craig power plants and what this will mean to air quality in and around the Yampa Valley," Zopf said.

"There is a lot of public interest and there hasn't been much information."

The multimillion-dollar remediation efforts at the two power plants are a direct result of lawsuits filed by the Sierra Club against the owners of the power plants. The Sierra Club alleged in the suits that the power plants have violated daily federal limits on smokestack emissions numerous times.

Reed Zars, a lead attorney for the Sierra Club, will talk about the history of the lawsuits and both planned and actual pollution reductions at the two power plants.

Zopf said representatives of the power plants have also been invited to participate but have expressed reluctance.

The genesis of the pollution-control efforts can be found in studies of the Zirkel wilderness that began in 1993 and intensified in 1997. They found evidence of high levels of acid precipitation in lakes in Zirkel. Specifically, the study zeroed in on acid deposition in the snowpack in Zirkel. Acid snow is potentially more threatening to the environment than acid rain because the melting snowpack in spring can flush a winter's worth of acidity into the watershed.

The studies by U.S. Geological Survey scientists Jon Turk and Donald Campbell, among others, found that evidence of acid precipitation in Zirkel was more than twice that found elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains.

Studies pointed a finger at the coal-fired power plants upwind from Zirkel as the source of sulfates and nitrates that are equated with acid precipitation.

The equivalent of the "canary in the coal mine" in the acid precipitation study has been the tiger salamander and the survivability of its eggs.

One study documented biological damage at Dumont Lake on Rabbit Ears Pass, which is close to Steamboat but 10 miles south of the 140,000-acre wilderness area. It found salamander egg mortality ranging from 20 percent in less acid ponds surrounding Dumont Lake, up to a range between 60 and 100 percent in more acid ponds.

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