Science

ACID RAIN

Who will save our lakes ?

Roy MacGregor June 30 1980
Science

ACID RAIN

Who will save our lakes ?

Roy MacGregor June 30 1980

ACID RAIN

Science

Roy MacGregor

They have worn away with grace, the old man and his knife. The fisherman is 80, the knife 33. He has his pacemaker and game leg; the knife is now a thin taper, its glint lost to the circling scratch of whetstone. Through seasons defined by catch rather than weather, they have fished and hunted and trapped along the west side of Algonquin Park, and by treating nature with respect they have in turn gained respect. Skinning plaques for ubest-handled fur, Ontario Trappers Association ” brighten the old tar-papered home in Kearney; black and white photographs are filled with long strings of lake trout, glorious memories hanging in heavy smiles between two cedars or in the large, sure hands of master guide Ralph Bice, the knife by his side. He takes it up now, the blue handle rolling magically, comfortably along his palm. The knife seems eager, but the old fisherman will not be taking it with him this season. He has another

Sixty kilometres south of the fisherman a pile of raccoon droppings sits on a plank leading out to the dock. Bob Bennett steps over it and smiles. The raccoon has been eating crawfish and Bennett had thought the crawfish had been wiped out, early victims of acid rain, the horror that now threatens his beloved lake trout. It is a good sign in the bleak times of Bob Bennett, pastpresident of the Port Carling beautification committee, onetime mayor of Muskoka Lakes, current sourpuss of Ontario’s cottage country. From his retirement home above an enormous skull of granite, Bennett can look down onto Lake Rosseau and out toward what, as mayor, he once considered his tax base: dowdy, out-of-touch lodges, elegant old cottages with staff quarters behind the spruce stand, lemon-polished runabouts awaiting the regatta in petunia-graced boathouses. All this money takes him back to December, when he tried to use part of the $560,000 district council had set aside for “pollution control” to launch a lawsuit against Inco Ltd. The intention would be to force the company’s Sudbury smelters to stop producing the acid rain that Bennett believes is destroying Muskoka. But it was a naïve idea. First, he couldn’t find a seconder for his motion. Then he was taken quietly aside by concerned councillors and told to can it, that all his bellyaching about something that can’t be

seen, tasted or felt was going to drive away the cottagers. No tax base, no progress. No tourist business, no future.

So Bob Bennett resigned. He went back to his hilltop perch and late one night this past spring an idea came to him, a bizarre and daring scheme that would enrage Inco and confound environmentalists, but one that he felt would settle the acid rain argument once and for all. Anxious himself to avoid a lawsuit, he began transferring his assets to his wife. Come the summer, he would rent an aircraft and set off for Sudbury.. ..

The idea, of course, would be to make people aware. Acid rain falls extensively in northern Europe, northeastern United States and Eastern Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec. But it is, unfortunately, a wearisome topic— when it rains, it bores—one filled with contrary theories, difficult symbols and terrifying speculation. It begins in a smelter, a coal-burning hydro plant, even an automobile exhaust, rises into the air as sulphur dioxide (SO.,) or nitrogen dioxide (NO.) and then travels by cloud up to and beyond 1,000 km until it eventually falls as diluted sulphuric or nitric acid. Not strong enough to dissolve warts but strong enough in at least two recorded instances—Chalk River, Ont., and Pitlochry, Scotland—to compare roughly with vinegar. When it falls in a buffered area—where limestone exists, for instance—the acid is neutralized. But when there is no buffer's in much of the Canadian Shield, the rain remains a poison. In New York

Who will save our lakes ?

state’s Adirondack Mountains, also without a buffer, 170 lakes have been officially declared dead. In Ontario, 140, and some 48,000 more are in danger. Quebec has similar worries. Seven salmon rivers in Nova Scotia no longer produce salmon. An Ohio state government study claims that if something is not done quickly, 2,500 lakes a year to the end of the century will die in Ontario, Quebec and New England.

“It is,” says former federal environment minister John Fraser, “the worst environmental hazard this country has yet faced.” His Liberal successor, John Roberts, adds, “We can’t afford to wait,” and he suggests that the dead lakes may be but a rumor of horrors to come. The erosion of buildings, he says, may be costing $2 to $3 billion a year in North America. The Parthenon in Greece and Rome’s Colosseum are both deteriorating in Europe’s acid rain. Swedish scientists are saying their forest growth fell off 10 per cent during the

1970s, the result of British and West European industrial pollution, and a similar discovery here would undoubtedly shake Canada’s $4-billion-ayear forestry business. There is talk of soil being affected, new theories that mercury poisoning has a direct tie to acid rain, fretting that the Alberta oil sands projects will send acid rain over the fragile North. And the concerns are given much added worry in light of the American intention to reduce oil dependency by 300,000 barrels a day by 1985. To that end, 80 oil-burning power plants will convert to coal and, given President Jimmy Carter’s willingness to relax pollution controls, that alone could boost American sulphur dioxide emissions— already the highest in the world—by a stunning 25 per cent at some installations. “We’re on a collision course,” says Martin Rivers of Ottawa’s Air Pollution Control Directorate. “If we don’t move, we’re going to hit the bottom.”

Given the growing scientific evidence, the proof has been less difficult to deal with than the blame. Dead lakes in and around Sudbury are easily connected to the Inco and Falconbridge smelters, but where do the people of rural Ontario and Quebec look? And if Dr. Leonard Hamilton of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., is right when he claims “about 5,000 Canadians die every year” from respiratory problems associated with the dry form of this pollution, who is going to carry the burden of guilt? Bob Bennett blames Inco; Inco argues, with some justification, that it is but a small part of the problem and in turn blames the heavy industrial polluters of the Ohio Valley; the Americans, not surprisingly, blame the Canadians. It is worth remembering that when it rains the notion of an umbrella is to deflect the spray.

That the main complaint rises from Ontario is simply indicative of Ontario’s delicate position. An obvious producer of the chemical ingredients of acid rain, Ontario is perhaps the main sufferer. The cost figures bandied about are so incomprehensibly enormous— John Roberts estimates $8 billion to save Canada by the year 2000, perhaps $80 billion in the U.S. —that it is perhaps simpler to sharpen the focus. Ontario’s 2,000 fishing lodges, for example, contribute $150 million annually and employ six per cent of the province’s northern labor force. An as-yet-unreleased study prepared by the Ontario ministry of environment says that even at current acid rain rates there could be a $64-million loss and serious survival problems for 600 of the lodges over the next 20 years.

On May 1, the Ontario ministry of environment announced new control orders against Inco which would leave current sulphur dioxide emissions at

Where the acid rain falls

14 — ALKALINE

10.5 —Milk of Magnesia

8.5 —Lakes Ontario & Erie (annual mean)

8.2 —Baking Soda

7.0 —NEUTRAL—Distilled Water

6.6 —Milk

5.6 —“Clean” or Normal Rain

4.2 —Tomatoes

4.0-4.2 —Annual mean pH of rain in Muskoka/Haliburton area

Th« pH Param«t«r

the current level (2,500 tons per day) until mid-1983, at which point they would have to drop to 1,950 tons a day. John Roberts, anxious to maintain federal-provincial harmony on that issue, immediately commended his provincial counterpart, Harry Parrott, for his “courageous” act, but Ontario Liberal leader Dr. Stuart Smith had another view: “You have to wonder how Parrott can maintain the knees in his trousers after negotiations like that.” “Before we make any Draconian jump,” one official in the provincial ministry argues, “we’d better be damned sure what we’re doing is the right thing.” But for Smith and a growing horde of angered citizens, such action would be not unlike pulling on the emergency brake after the car has already plunged off the bridge.

It is, unfortunately, the politics of acid rain that is most corrosive of all. When John Fraser was appointed federal environment minister by Joe Clark (himself a former environment critic), he was given, he says, “a sweeping mandate to raise Environment’s profile.” And, at first, it worked. “When Fraser got together with the provincial ministers and they endorsed a leadership role, it was like pole-vaulting for us,” says Martin Rivers. Two federal-provincial working committees were set up, with Ontario heading the one on environmental effects and Quebec the second on strategy. Fraser earnestly began i working toward an international agreement with the Americans, which he pegged for the spring of 1981. But soon there was trouble. External Affairs (then under Flora MacDonald) formally

complained that such negotiations were External’s territory and that Fraser should mind his manners. Fraser refused and in January went before cabinet, asked for a $5-million commitment solely for acid rain research and had it approved in principle.

But Fraser was not long for the job. Under the new Liberal regime the money has slipped only slightly to $4 million but, more importantly, the crucial Canadian-U.S. agreement has been set back, by Roberts’ guess, to “within two to three years.” Roberts does talk about possibly moving toward federal regulation of polluting companies but that clashes against the will of Harry Parrott, who believes it to be “the traditional role of the province to be the

recipient of U.S.-generated acid rain, American environmentalists are puzzled that Canadians are doing little to pressure the U.S. to clean up its act. In fact, early this year, when a U.S. congressional subcommittee held investigative hearings on acid rain, Canadian officials were asked to testify but did not. Instead, the Canadian embassy in Washington sent a rather tame letter, even by diplomatic standards, to Texas Representative Bob Eckhardt expressing Canadian concerns over the lack of environmental protection. Says Washington environmental lawyer Michael

M’Gonigle: “Any money spent in the U.S. is bound to benefit Canada when it comes to acid rain. Why aren’t they using more diplomatic muscle?”

A lack of clear leadership is seen by many scientists as a problem almost the equal of acid rain itself. “Where is our integrated program?” asks Professor Harold Harvey, the University of Toronto zoologist generally conceded to be the Canadian forerunner in acid rain research. “I’ve been working on this for 15 years and very soon I’ll have to ask, ‘Who is my client? Who wants to know what I’ve been proving?’ ” He remains at least slightly optimistic. Others are not. “It’s already bad,” says Hans Martin of the federal Atmospheric Environment Service, “and it’s going to get very bad.”

In 1964, Harold Harvey first went to the La Cloche Mountains near Ontario’s

Manitoulin Island. He was intending to study the appearance of huge and dwarf white suckers inhabiting neighboring lakes and, to that end, he spent two summers tagging the fish in Lumsden and George Lakes. When his colleague, Richard Beamish, returned the following summer he discovered the entire 1,600 dwarf suckers of Lumsden Lake had vanished—suddenly, inexplicably and despite screened-off and impassable falls. In 1967 the trout similarly disappeared. In 1969, the lake herring. Harvey and Beamish began monitoring a the surrounding lakes and discovered ** the water’s pH level to be astoundingly low, and further checks on old government records showed that the lakes had been getting progressively worse each year. “We couldn’t believe our eyes,” recalls Harvey. “No fish in Ontario can survive in pH 4.5 for long, and we found lakes even lower. We began to smell a rat.” Some 50 km away, coincidentally, lay Sudbury, and there Inco.

Inco is the obvious symbol for acid rain. With desolate Sudbury covered with the company’s fingerprints and a $26-million, 380-metre super-stack phallus pointing toward the carrier clouds, there is little question of guilt. “Building that stack,” rues one company official, “has to be the worst public-relations decision in corporate history.” Actually, it was built with government prodding, but the stack’s sheer arrogance demands special acknowl> edgment from the acid rain critics, in The American environmentalists and i politicians who have centred squarely

on the highly visible super-stack, 0 claiming it alone produces one per cent | of all sulphur dioxide produced in the g entire world, are correct in that it does ^ produce 900,000 tons of the 5.5 million s tons of sulphur dioxide that Canada 0 dumps into the clouds each year. The 1 Americans, however, produce five times Canada’s total—25 times Inco’s—but can argue that, on a per capita basis, they are only half as guilty as each Canadian. And so Inco, naturally, continues to take the main rap.

“Why are you knocking us?” new Inco Metals President Walter Curlook asked after a June 4 public forum in Sudbury. He had spent a good portion of the meeting arguing that Inco’s sulphur dioxide containment had risen from a pathetic 20 per cent in 1966 to its current level of 70 per cent and he detailed how investment in a new, troubled, but still promising, cleansing process had risen from $9 to $17 million. He had seemed vitally sincere when he said, “The job must be done, can be done, will be done,” but he had also shifted effortlessly into what he called “the real world,” warning that Inco’s production, already at 80 million pounds under full capacity (340 million pounds of nickel a year), would never fully recover under the new regulations. Watch out for competitors, he said: “Sudbury has had enough bad news in recent years.” Predictably, the local Chamber of Commerce leapt to his defence, denouncing the control order and pleading for Canadians to “stop the acid rain scare tactics.” Inco—while never denying that its emissions result in acid rain—did hint strongly that it may appeal the control order.

“They admit they’re guilty, sure,” says Pollution Probe’s Bill Glenn. “But it’s like pleading guilty to a lesser charge. You’re charged with murder and you end up paying a traffic fine.”

In 1970, Inco was ordered by the On-

tario government to reduce in stages its sulphur dioxide emissions of 7,000 tons to 750 tons per day by the end of 1978. Five years later, Inco proposed that the 750-ton figure be changed to 1,500—a level that it said would cost $300 million to achieve. Inco, however, withdrew the offer the very same year before the government could make a decision on it. In 1976, it made another proposed reduction, this time to 3,100 tons per day, but the government rejected it because it wasn’t good enough.

With company profits amounting to $1.6 billion over that same decade, it is difficult to have much sympathy for Inco, particularly so in light of a not officially released Environment Canada report prepared by a Toronto investment analyst known as “Deep Throat,” which convincingly argues that Inco could reduce emissions to 1,000 tons a day for a $430-million investment.

Inco argues, however, that the smoking gun has yet to be produced. Blamed for the troubles in Muskoka and Haliburton cottage country, they now can point to recent Ontario government studies that would seem to indicate that up to 80 per cent of the acid rain in that area originates in the U.S. The point that Inco’s 900,000 tons of sulphur dioxide emitted each year must fall somewhere (probably Quebec) is avoided. Appropriately, Floyd Laughren, NDP provincial member for Nickel Belt, calls the acid rain controversy a “battle of studies.” If the environmentalists dig up an ignored 1977 Domtar Ltd. study that claims “sharply elevated levels of mercury” have been caused by acid rain in Muskoka and southeast New Brunswick, the industry can point to the University of Guelph report that claims acid rain actually benefits crops in wellbuffered southern Ontario, where the

sulphur and nitrogen can act as fertilizer. And meanwhile, the rain continues to fall. As exhausted Inco VicePresident Stuart Warner said, as he watched the assorted vested interests leaving the Sudbury meeting, “We are all actors in this.”

“If we wait for the hard, concrete facts,” says Martin Rivers, “then we’ve gone too far.” Canadian environmentalists are decidedly pessimistic when it

comes to the hope that the Americans will act. “It looks like we’ll be lucky just to hold the line down there,” says Pollution Probe’s Glenn. As the U.S. Clean Air Act doesn’t even provide for interstate disputes, the mind boggles over how a U.S.-Canadian agreement could ever work. And with Ronald Reagan in the wings, Carter relaxing pollution controls rather than strengthening them as he once promised and The Wall Street Journal editorializing that economic growth in the U.S. is being impeded by “the fanaticism of a few environmentalists,” it is dubious whether something that mostly affects a foreign country could ever arouse American public opinion to, say, Ontario’s level, where, according to an Ontario government survey, 79 per cent have heard of acid rain and nine out of 10 of those people consider it a “serious” problem.

“We are the victims,” says Denis Vincent, executive assistant to Quebec Environment Minister Marcel Léger. “It’s mostly the Americans who are the aggressors. But with their energy worries they are not likely to be in a sympathetic mood.”

“As far as my fish are concerned,” says Professor Harvey, “they don’t give a damn whether it’s Canadian or American acid rain that’s killing them.”

And so, already there is a search go-

ing on for alternatives to government action. Sweden, which has 20,000 lakes suffering, has a $9-million program where a commercial buffer, lime, is dumped into ailing lakes. Canadian scientists at first dismissed this approach as ludicrous, but four lakes have already been limed in Ontario at a $50-anacre cost and summer students in Sudbury are busy spreading bags of lime over the black scars of Sudbury. Given that there are 48,000 hurting lakes and it costs from $4,000 to $40,000 to do a lake every year, the costs might seem better applied to cleaning up at the source rather than the result. “Liming lakes seems rather ridiculous,” says Ed Lindmeier, president of the 850-member Northern Ontario Outfitters Association. “It’s so bloody expensive, and how long would it last anyway?”

The former mayor, Bob Bennett, thinks all these ideas are crazy. That’s why he intends, once and for all, to settle the “blame” issue—at least as far as Ontario’s cottage country is concerned. And then the politicians can get on with it. As soon as he finds a suitable dye and can rent an appropriate plane, he plans to take off for Sudbury. He’ll circle the super-stack a couple of times and then drop the payload. And a few days later, when Canadians somewhere—he figures Muskoka—wake up to find their washing, cars and lawns suddenly a shocking pink, that’s the moment when action will begin. “I’ll admit to it,” he says, and I’ll say ‘Go ahead and sue me.’ I’ll simply say it’s as hard to prove as it is for me to prove Inco has killed my lake.”

Yes, the old trapper has seen changes. From an illiterate grandfather who trapped, through a father who trapped and guided, through himself and on to his own son, Douglas, who has become a judge—a lot has indeed changed. The fish are far fewer; the family much larger. There are his own six children, 22 grandchildren, U great-grandchildren. The youngest is a boy, days old, the first to inherit the old trapper’s Christian name. Ralph Bice has no idea what the boy will be when he grows up, what he will care for and what will move him. But he does know himself “I have decided,” he says, “I want to die gutting a fish. And unless I pass certain things on now, nobody’s going to do it when Fm gone. ” And that is why the old hunting knife is being parcelled and mailed to a newborn child who cannot possibly understand, but who may one day look at it and be reminded of something that was very special to his great-grandfather, something that he had dearly hoped to pass on.

Catherine Fox

June Rogers