Editorial

Umbrellas across the border must tackle our acid rain

Peter C. Newman June 30 1980
Editorial

Umbrellas across the border must tackle our acid rain

Peter C. Newman June 30 1980

Umbrellas across the border must tackle our acid rain

Editorial

Peter C. Newman

"Acid rain” sounds like one of those trigger buzz words that bearded environmentalists in safari jackets dream up to keep themselves in the headlines. But as Roy MacGregor’s story (page 40) documents, it is a little-known phenomenon which has quietly become our most critical pollution problem.

Created by the gases (sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) that rise into the atmosphere from such sources as the combustion of coal, smelters and car exhausts, it rains down in the form of sulphuric and nitric acid. This process has already irreversibly destroyed all forms of aquatic life in 140 Ontario lakes and the same pattern is discernible in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. About 170 lakes in the American Adirondacks no longer support fish populations.

Apart from its aquatic effects, acid rain seriously depletes soil fertility and cuts forest productivity.

The most visible target for the anti-acid rain crusaders is Inco’s 380-metre-high smokestack at Sudbury. The company’s past emissions have reduced the immediate area’s topography to a desolate moonscape, but Inco can justifiably claim that its sulphur output has been drastically reduced (and will continue to drop) at the very time that acid rain’s effects have most dramatically multiplied.

The fact is that most of the acid rain that falls on Canada is wafted north on clouds caused by U.S. industrial emissions, with an estimated four million tons crossing the 49th parallel every year. President Jimmy Carter’s current electric-utility coal conversion program threatens to increase this poisonous flow in some installations by 25 per cent and American scientists at Cornell University are already trying to breed strains of acid-resistant fish.

The only solution is to tackle the issue in a joint U.S.-Canadian context. A useful first step would be to follow the urgings of John Fraser, the Conservative MP from Vancouver South (and a former environmental minister), for the immediate establishment of an allparty parliamentary committee to alert public opinion on both sides of the border and formulate some workable solutions. Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Act, pollution effects of new industrial and power installations can be examined and curtailed. There are adequate legal precedents for declaring transborder liability and even the awarding of damages when one country’s activities violate neighboring environments.

No magic answers exist. But as John Fraser warns: “The process of the acidification of our lakes ends in crystal-clear waters whose apparent beauty belies the fact that they are now empty mirrors—tantalizing, alluring, but lifeless.”