In the early hours of Monday, Oct. 22, 33 senators and congressmen argued bitterly in a conference room of Washington’s Capitol building. The subject: acid rain. For 15 weeks, the legislators had been struggling to agree on conflicting proposals for a clean-air bill, along with a compromise that President George Bush proposed in June. Finally, just before dawn, the weary negotiators struck a deal that is expected to lead to a drastic reduction in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from American electrical utilities and factories. Environmentalists say that those emissions are responsible for the acid rain that scientists have blamed for the death of North American lakes and forests. Said Montana Democrat Max Baucus, co-chairman of the House-Senate conference committee that struck the deal: “The agreement is without doubt one of the most comprehensive and sweeping environmental laws that Congress has passed in this century.”
Under the bill, which extensively amends the 20-year-old Clean Air Act, American manufacturers, power utilities and consumers could face estimated costs of up to $25 billion a year as polluters switch to cleaner fuels and install equipment to reduce emissions. Agreement on the bill, which Congress late last week formally approved and sent on for Bush’s signature, ended a decade of bitter wrangling between the White House and Congress and years of impasse between Washington and Ottawa. Environmentalists and officials on both sides of the border hailed the agreement. “It has been a long struggle,” said William Reilly, administrator of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. “Now, we’ve seen the light of day.” John Bennett, a campaigner with the Toronto-based Canadian wing of the environmental organization Greenpeace, said that he had reservations that the bill did not go far enough, but added, “We are pleased that the United States is moving on acid rain.”
Under the sweeping package agreed on by the committee, electrical power utilities that use coal or oil as fuel will have 10 years to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions to 9.1 million tons a year from the current level of 19 million tons, and nitrogen oxide emissions to four million tons from six million tons annually. Those reductions could be achieved through the use of low-sulphur coal or natural gas, or by installing smokestack scrubbers to filter emissions. As well, in an effort to reduce the smog that chokes many North American cities, the bill aims to reduce automobile tail-pipe emissions of nitrogen oxide by 60 per cent and hydrocarbons by 40 per cent by 1997. In another sweeping move, the bill orders indus-
try in the coming decade to eliminate 90 per cent of emissions into the air of such toxic substances as benzene, mercury and dioxin. The conference committee’s sweeping pro-
posals were the product of political compromises. The support of Midwest legislators emerged only after the last-minute White House approval of a $290-million compensation package over five years for workers laid off as the result of clean-air measures. According to the Washington-based United Mine Workers of America union, between 12,000 and 15,000 coal-mining jobs could be lost during the next 10 years as firms phase out the mining of high-sulphur coal.
The compromise bill also provided for a complicated credit system under which coalburning power utilities that reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide below
scheduled targets or before targeted dates will earn credits that can, in turn, be sold to other polluters. The credit system provides a way for cash-pinched utilities to earn the funds needed to pay for pollution-control equipment, or for switching to cleaner fuels.
Some environmentalists on both sides of the border called the new bill a victory for Canada’s environmental lobby, which for years has pressured Washington to take tougher action against the sources of acid rain. During the administration of president Ronald Reagan, many Canadian officials and environmental lobbyists expressed frustration at Washington’s refusal to recognize acid rain as a proven environmental threat. Said Michael Perley, consultant to the Toronto-based Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain: “It was very tough and very lonely.” Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Derek Burney, who often had the task of communicating Ottawa’s concern over acid rain to American officials, told Maclean ’s that the compromise bill was “good news for Canadians and a healthy tonic for our shared North American environment.”
In Ottawa, officials of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government said that passage of the bill by Washington could pave the way for the signing, later this year, of a Canadian-U.S. trans-boundary air-quality agreement. Such an agreement would require Canadian and U.S. legislators to abide by new emission standards. But some environmentalists said that the U.S. clean-air amendments expose weaknesses in Canada’s own attack on acid rain. David McRobert, program co-ordinator for Ontario-based Pollution Probe, said that, because the U.S. bill is legislated and places permanent caps on emissions, it will give the United States a stronger regulatory structure than Canada. In Canada, emissions are governed by federalprovincial agreements, most of which will have to be renegotiated by 1995. McRobert also said that while the federal-provincial agreements aim to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 50 per cent below 1985 levels by 1995, many are based on outdated standards.
Still, Canadian officials generally expressed enthusiasm about the likelihood of a major reduction in North American acid rain during the next decade. Said Alexander Manson, the Ottawa-based director of issues management for Environment Canada: “We think that, with our own program in Canada and with the U.S. acid rain reductions, we have got things about right in terms of protecting the environment.” Scientists say that as a result of reduced acid rain emissions in Canada, some eastern Canadian lakes that were regarded as biologically dead are now returning to life. Still, Manson said it has probably taken 15 or 20 years for acid rain to damage North American waterways. As a result, Manson said, Canadians should not expect instant rehabilitation: it will likely take the same length of time to return North American waters to complete health once the sweeping measures proposed by Washington finally take effect.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.