Mount Zirkel's acid trip

  Two Colorado power plants are cleaning up their act, but it may be a case of too little too late. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey studying the Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Colo., have found that air pollution from coal-burning power plants in the towns of Hayden and Craig harms wildlife.

The plants release sulfur dioxide, which pollutes the snowpack and, eventually, ponds and streams. The result: Mount Zirkel's snowpack is the most acidic of any measured in the Rockies, the Cascades or the Sierras. The damage may be making its way into the food chain. Researchers found dead tiger salamander eggs in Dumont Lake near Mount Zirkel, and their report predicts that the acidic spring melt will harm the bottom of the food chain, killing zooplankton, fish and amphibian eggs.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which says the Hayden power plant had some 29,000 violations of the Clean Air Act in the past five years, recently ordered the plant to reduce smokestack emissions by 85 percent, at an estimated cost of $130 million. The Craig plant has lawsuits pending against it as well, and is now improving its facilities. But USGS hydrologist Don Campbell says even these large-scale changes may do little to reverse the damage already evident in the wilderness area.

Steve Dayney of Public Service of Colorado, which owns 50 percent of the Hayden facility, doesn't deny there's pollution. But he says it comes mainly from urban and industrial areas.

For a copy of John T. Turk and Donald H. Campbell's four-page report, contact the District Chief at the U.S. Geological Survey, Water Resources Division, Bldg. 53., Denver Federal Center, Mail Stop 415, Box 25046, Denver, CO 80225 (303/236-4882).

*Emily Miller