ENVIRONMENT

Attacking the tall stacks

Ian Austen July 15 1985
ENVIRONMENT

Attacking the tall stacks

Ian Austen July 15 1985

Attacking the tall stacks

ENVIRONMENT

Ian Austen

They are the most visible symbols of acid rain. Indeed, the tall smokestacks of the U:S. industri-

al heartland, some of which soar to almost 1,200 feet, are well-known as a main source of the airborne pollutants that land on the forests and lakes of Central and Eastern Canada as acidic rain and snow. As a result, when a U.S. federal court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to draft new tail-stack regulations to curb future emissions, the environmental groups that had led a 13-year battle against the giant chimneys anticipated a major victory. But the agency’s complex new rules disappointed acid rain activists. Said Richard Ayres, chairman of the Washington-based National Clean Air coalition: “The policy is a hoax, and the claimed reductions are bogus.”

The tail-stack controversy began in 1972, when the EPA decided to allow some companies to use tall stacks to disperse emissions instead of cleaning them up. Tall stacks like the 1,250-foot one at Inco Ltd.’s Sudbury, Ont., smelter significantly dilute wastes by lofting them high into the atmosphere. But they do not eliminate pollution. U.S.

environmental groups contend that the 1970 Clean Air Act bans dilution schemes and requires cleanup instead. As well, the tail-stack dispersal creates ideal conditions for sulphur dioxide—a byproduct of coal burning and metal smelting—to combine with water vapor in the air. The acidic solution travels hundreds of miles before falling on the mainly Canadian regions that are experiencing significant fish kills, and it may cause stunted forest growth.

Numerous critics have _

attacked the EPA policy.

U.S. federal courts have declared parts of it illegal, and Congress voted against allowing dilution in 1974 and again in 1977.

But the agency resisted making changes until a 1983 court ruling, which the Reagan administration unsuccessfully attempted to have referred to the Supreme Court, forced it to. In general, the agency has changed the policy by defining the original 1972 provisions much more closely. Industries will be less free

to put stacks that existed before 1971 to new uses, and there is a more precise description of “good engineering practices,” a vague term that the 1972 regulations gave as a reason to allow tall stacks.

At first, agency spokesmen said that the new rules could reduce potential sulphur dioxide emissions by 1.7 million tons per year by 1995, although Charles Elkins, acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, said that they were “not designed to be an acid rain program.” Said EPA spokesman Christian Rice: “Our estimate was very rough. Admittedly, after the environmental groups called our hand on it, we kind of backed off that number and admitted it was on the high side.”

Indeed, the EPA’S latest ruling characterizes overall Reagan administration opposition to significant acid rain action. Recent pledges by the Canadian government to cut sulphur dioxide emissions by half—a tactic partly intended to induce similar U.S. action—have gone unheeded south of the border. Despite the initiatives of New England congressmen, whose states have experienced most of the U.S. acid rain damage, more powerful legislators from industrial and coal-producing states have consistently opposed reform. The Reagan administration also opposes an expensive clean-up, although the President did appoint former transportation secretary Drew Lewis to study the situation, along with former Ontario premier William Davis, who was appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

For the impasse to be broken many observers think research will have to make a clear case that acid rain is harming the U.S. forest industry or public health. The first significant results of those forestry studies remain one to two years away, but other evidence of acid rain’s harmful effects continues to accumulate. Within days of the EPA tailstacks announcement, the Washingtonbased National Clean Air Fund

provided copies of restricted U.S. government acid rain maps which show that, since 1982, “acid dead” lakes are now found everywhere in the northeastern United States. Deborah Sheiman, a Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. specialist who analysed the maps, declared, “The new information we have presented ought to cause the administration to reassess its position.” But the Reagan administration does not appear to be preparing any swift response.