ENVIRONMENT

Washington wakes up to acid rain

Pat Ohlendorf July 18 1983
ENVIRONMENT

Washington wakes up to acid rain

Pat Ohlendorf July 18 1983

Washington wakes up to acid rain

ENVIRONMENT

Pat Ohlendorf

Working furiously to meet an Aug. 1 deadline, staff members at the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington are preparing what one official there terms “the last word” on acid rain and what the Americans should do about it. Recent events that have signalled a new and open climate for acid rain controls in Washington will further bolster whatever specific recommendations the EPA makes to the White House. Suddenly, after years of footdragging over an issue of mounting concern in U.S.-Canadian relations, Washington now has decided to confront the hazards of acid rain.

The first indication of the shift came last month when a White House task force finally conceded that acid rain is “probably” man-made and that something should be done about it—fast (.Maclean's, June 20). Since then two prestigious U.S. scientific reports have criticized government inaction. And simultaneously, scientists in the United States and elsewhere voiced new concerns that acid rain, in addition to killing lakes, has stunted forest growth and possibly posed a health hazard to humans by contaminating drinking water with harmful heavy metals from pipes and the soil. The worries spread to politicians, who underscored the sense of urgency. “The acid rain debate has entered an important new phase,” noted Republican Senator Robert Stafford of Vermont, sponsor of two acid rain bills currently before the Senate. “We are no longer discussing whether a control program is necessary, but what its content will be.”

Not surprisingly, Canadian environmental scientists are taking advantage of the new U.S. concern over acid rain. A group of scientists from Environment Canada arrived in Washington last week, at the EPA’s invitation, to provide more details on Canada’s position on the problem. “We are feeling very encouraged that things are starting to move,” Environment Minister John Roberts told Maclean's. “We hope to convince [the Americans] that now is the time to act, and to push for an overall 50-per-cent reduction in emissions by 1990.”

The new optimism is based mainly on the hard-hitting language of the two reports released at the end of June. The highly respected U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), for its part, at-

tempted to put to rest the arguments long favored by opponents of acid rain cleanup. Industries with vested interests in coal, for example, have claimed that not enough was known about the relationship between what goes up the smokestacks and what comes down in the rain to guarantee effective control. But the NAS, after reviewing scientific models of the relationship, concluded that reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by a given amount across the continent would produce an equivalent decrease in acid rain. Said the study’s director, Jack Calvert: “It tells them for the first

time that they can get something for their bucks that is going to pay off.”

The other report, prepared by the White House Office of Science and Technology, swept aside even more strongly the claim that more investigation was needed before any action could be taken. It concluded: “If we take the conservative point of view that we must wait until the scientific knowledge is definitive, the accumulated deposition and damaged environment may reach the point of irreversibility.”

Of special concern to the White House group was growing evidence of the effect of acid rain not just on lakes

but on forests and the soils beneath them. Although the problem has just emerged in North America, it has been well documented in Europe, especially in West Germany. There, the death of forests, largely due to acid rain, is rapidly assuming the proportions of a national disaster. Both older trees and seedlings of fir, spruce, pine and beech are yellowing and dying, especially at higher altitudes. Laments biologist Heinz-Detlef Gregor of the German federal environment agency: “Some areas of forest cannot be saved by any measures we enact now. It is too late.”

In North America scientists have noted evidence of the beginnings of a similar acid rain devastation of forests in southeastern Ontario, Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the Green Mountains in Vermont. But little study has been carried out so far on acid rain’s damage to trees on this continent. Says Roberts: “We are convinced that it is happening and we are convinced that it is serious, but we cannot quantify it.”

Recent suggestions that in certain areas acid rain may be a public health hazard are even more disturbing. Health and Welfare studies in Ontario

indicate that acidic water can “leach” heavy metals, such as lead and copper, out of old pipes and into drinking water. After tests last summer in lakes in the vacation regions of Haliburton and Muskoka, federal investigators recommended that cottagers allow their tap water to run for a few minutes before using it in the morning. The aim was to flush out concentrations of leached metals that had built up overnight. More recent research in the United States has focused on dangerous fellow travellers of acid rain—particles of aluminum, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc, which are also propelled from industrial smokestacks. After falling to earth, these substances can later be pulled from the soil by acidic water.

The EPA’s associate administrator for international activities, Fitzhugh Green, is confident that acid rain “is not going to be put on the back burner.” But working out the details of a solution, he adds, “is going to be very complicated.” Not surprisingly, some members of the coal and utility industries continue to oppose a cleanup. The Peabody Coal Co. of St. Louis, Mo., the largest U.S. coal producer, insists that acrossthe-continent emission reductions would not result in comparable reductions in the worst-affected areas. As well, the Washington-based Edison Electric Institute, representing the electric utilities industry, is warning that stiff acid rain controls could mean a 50-per-cent hike in utility bills in some parts of the United States.

Because creating acid rain legislation in the United States is such a delicate political process, U.S. officials view Canada’s participation with mixed feelings. Officially, Washington has welcomed the co-operation between scientists from both countries. Nevertheless, in private conversations there is dissatisfaction in some quarters. One congressional assistant, who requested anonymity, said that Canada is “inexcusably tardy” in adopting automobile emission standards, and he pointed to the “tremendous tonnage” of sulphur oxides put out by the Inco Ltd. smelter in Sudbury, Ont.

What the United States intends finally to do—with or without input from Canada—will not become clear until the EPA’s new director, William Ruckleshaus, makes his recommendations to the White House early next month. Meanwhile, as the legislative wheels grind on, more bodies of water in eastern North America are joining the list—now conservatively estimated at 2,000—of lakes, rivers and streams that no longer support life of any kind. But at least there is now hope of preventing similar irreversible damage to other lakes, forests and human beings.

David Folster