A chemical leprosy is eating away at the face of the U.S. It's popularly known as acid rain, but rain isn't the only culprit.
The true name for this phenomenon is acid precipitation. In addition to acid rain, it includes acid snow, acid sleet, acid hail, acid frost, acid rime, acid fog, acid mist, acid dew and "dry" deposits of acid particles, aerosols and gases. And it's not only this country's problem. It is, however, the responsibility of the U.S.—as both perpetrator and victim of this ecological crime—to recognize the extreme dangers of acid precipitation and to take steps to remedy it before it becomes so pervasive as to be irreversible.
Acid precipitation is caused by the emission of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the combustion of fossil fuels. Natural sources, such as volcanoes and mud flats, can emit sulfur dioxide into the air, but their contribution is small. "About 90% of the sulfur in the atmosphere of the northeastern United States comes from man-made sources," says Dr. George R. Hendrey, leader of the Environmental Sciences Group at the Brookhaven (N.Y.) National Laboratory.
Once aloft, the sulfur dioxide and the nitrogen oxides can be transformed into sulfuric and nitric acids by reacting with moisture in the atmosphere, and air currents can carry them hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from their source. When these acids precipitate to earth, they can have a devastating impact on lands and waters that have little natural buffering capacity.
September 20, 1981
•Acid precipitation can kill fish and other aquatic life outright. In Scandinavia, which is downwind of pollution pumped into the skies in Western Europe, it has already destroyed fish life in 5,000 lakes in southwestern Sweden and in seven Atlantic salmon rivers and 1,500 lakes in southern Norway.
•Acid precipitation can have damaging effects on human health.
•Acid precipitation may pose a menace to crops and forests.
•Acid deposition is already disfiguring buildings and monuments, including the U.S. Capitol.
•Acid precipitation, according to many scientists, is now the single most important environmental problem in North America. It's no Tellico Dam vs. snail-darter issue, in which an obscure branch of the biological tree was threatened by technology. Rather, acid precipitation is a problem of towering dimensions. DDT contamination posed serious problems in this country, but it couldn't match acid precipitation's capacity for destruction on so many fronts and on such an overwhelming scale.
Think this kind of stuff is hyperbole? In Canada, where the province of Ontario alone has lost an estimated 4,000 lakes and could lose another 48,000 in the next two decades, there's an urgent need to curb the sources of the pollution, many of them located in the U.S., that have created such devastation and dismal prospects. But there's precious little indication that Washington is going to act. On the contrary, there's every indication that the Reagan Administration, whose Clean Air Act Working Group is chaired by Interior Secretary James Watt, is planning to gut that act when it comes up for renewal or amendment in Congress this session. The Clean Air Act, which as written in 1970 doesn't really address the problem of acid precipitation, needs strengthening, not gutting—especially by the inclusion of measures to curtail acid precipitation. The revised law should require, among other things, the burning of low-sulfur coal, the installation of scrubbers at critical plants, investment in alternative energy sources and the establishment of emissions standards on a regional—or "bubble"—basis. The costs would be very little compared to the rate hikes imposed in recent years by OPEC. A 2% surcharge on the average utility bill in the East would get rid of half the sulfur dioxide in the region. These aren't far-out figures advanced by some wild-eyed eco-freak; they're from the report of the National Commission on Air Quality, the members of which are appointed by the President.
In the U.S., acid precipitation falls almost continuously on the ecologically vulnerable lands and waters of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine; in short, the 182,496-square-mile northeast quadrant of the U.S. Acid precipitation has destroyed trout streams, trout ponds and bass lakes, which is unsettling if not disastrous; it is also very close to rendering the Quabbin Reservoir, which serves more than two million people in the metropolitan Boston area, an economic disaster. The cost to keep the water potable in years to come promises to be enormous. As Alan VanArsdale of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering explains, "Our charge is to provide good water and, of course, we'll do that. But as the reservoir gets worse, the cost goes way up. Who wants to treat a 39-square-mile lake?"
This is a point often overlooked by the Reagan Administration: Environmental consciousness often makes good economic sense. In the classic pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later scenario, the costs the environment is not exacting today from the industries contributing to the acid rain problem, it will claim tomorrow from the public sector to clean up the resultant mess.
An official of the Environmental Protection Agency recently told Senator George Mitchell of Maine that the Administration isn't going to take any action as long as acid precipitation was confined to the Northeast. But that part of the U.S. isn't the only affected area. Southeastern states, from Florida to Kentucky, are being hit by the same mess. Some rain that falls on Raleigh, N.C. is more acid than white vinegar; The Charlotte Observer routinely reports on rain acidity on its weather page; and the Blue Ridge Parkway has become known as the Gray Ridge Parkway because of air-polluting ammonium sulfate, a form of acid precipitation.
Acid precipitation, often at levels that have been associated with the beginning of lake acidification in Scandinavia, is now falling on sensitive lands and waters in Michigan and Minnesota. It is also falling in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, California and Washington (see box on page 78).
That the barn door is still wide open after several prize horses have escaped seems irrelevant to the very people who are charged with guarding the door. No portion of the U.S. has been harder hit than the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The Adirondacks lie in an area affected by polluted air masses coming from the Ohio River Valley, southern Canada and the Middle West. What has happened in the Adirondacks is a preview of what might occur elsewhere.
"It's insidious," says C.V. Bowes Jr., the owner of Covewood Lodge, a resort on Big Moose Lake in the western Adirondacks. Bowes is standing in the living room of his house looking out at the acid waters of Big Moose, one of 212 Adirondack lakes and ponds that have so far been documented as acidified. It was on Big Moose, in 1906, that Chester Gillette drowned his lover, Grace Brown, thereby providing Theodore Dreiser with the basis for An American Tragedy, an ironically prophetic title in view of what has happened in recent years. The still pristine-appearing lake is now so acid that swimmers sometimes emerge with bloodshot eyes. Except for the few odd fish that hover about spring holes in the bottom, the trout are gone.
"I can remember how good the fishing was," Bowes says. "Then, 30 years ago, it slowly started to tail off. First the state blamed it on the big blowdown of 1950, when we lost 75% of our coniferous trees in the aftermath of a hurricane. The state said that the downed trees made the water poorer for fish. No one suspected what was wrong, but we should have known something was crazy when the trout the state stocked would run out of the lake down the outlet to the Moose River. The state next blamed the beaver. The conservation department said the beaver were warming up the water by damming tributary streams, and the department began dynamiting dam after dam, dozens of them. Acid rain was never mentioned. We never even heard about acid rain until five years ago, when we started reading about the trouble in Sweden and Canada."
By his own account, Bowes should have known better. Before he bought Covewood Lodge, a rustic hotel, in 1951, he was a professional naturalist on the staff of the National Audubon Society. Even after Bowes left Audubon, he ran field trips to Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa. But for all of his expertise in the workings of the world around him, he admits he didn't have a glimmer about acid precipitation until it was too late.
The incident that opened Bowes's eyes occurred only a year ago, at the start of the tourist season. In July and August, when business is hectic at the Lodge, Bowes, his wife, Diane, and their two young daughters, Kimberly and Rebecca, move out of their house and live in an apartment on the third floor of the hotel. They are downstairs running the hotel all day and use the apartment only at night. One evening in July 1980, Kimberly and Rebecca turned on the faucet in the apartment to get a drink of water. They complained that it tasted "funny." Indeed it did, and analysis disclosed that it contained five times the State Health Department's permissible amount of lead and three times the permissible amount of copper. It was determined that acid precipitates entering the spring that supplied the water for Bowes's hotel had leached the metals from the building's plumbing in poisonous amounts.
The lead and copper could be tasted in the water from the apartment faucet because the water had been sitting in the pipe all day. Bowes checked all the water pipes on his property. All but one—a pipe in Bowes's own house—had highly acidic water. Bowes was puzzled by this until he learned that the contractor who had built the well serving only the family's house had used limestone around its tiling. The limestone neutralized the acid in the water. By constructing limestone filter beds for the Lodge's water supply, Bowes was able to correct the problem. Which only begs the question: How many people dependent on wells in the Adirondacks, and other places where acid precipitation comes into contact with metals, know what's in their water? And what's the consumption of that water doing to those who drink it?
Five miles up the road from Covewood Lodge in the hamlet of Big Moose, Bill Marleau sits in an armchair in the living room of his small frame house. He's ticking off the lakes in the area that have been acidified, including Woods Lake, where he has had a small cabin for years. Except for the three years he served in the Navy during World War II, Marleau has spent his entire life in Big Moose. He's of the opinion that acid precipitation has an even more widespread effect on the region than has yet been documented. Marleau isn't a scientist. He doesn't have data printouts to substantiate his views. But he's a state forest ranger—he has been one for 33 years—and until the fishing collapsed, he was an ardent angler.
"Almost everything is down," says Marleau. "Everything. Acid rain affects the birds that feed on fish, the fur-bearing animals that feed on fish. The way I look at it, everything in nature is dependent on food, and when you reduce the food supply of those birds and animals, it affects other birds and animals that aren't directly dependent on aquatic insects and fish.
"The snowshoe rabbit is down, the fox is way down, deer are down, way down, the bobcat is down, the raccoon is down. Even the porcupine is disappearing. Bear is fairly plentiful, but of course a bear is like a pig. It will eat anything from bark to garbage. Frogs and crayfish are way down. Kingfisher, osprey, gulls, they're all down. The loon has disappeared. There are no mayflies, and darning needles are way down. There used to be clouds of them when there were thick hatches of mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are nothing like when I was a kid.
"You don't see fish jump anymore. There are no fish to jump, and even if there were, there'd be no insects to make them jump. It gets to a point where you're going to have to play God again and start all over by making the environment comfortable for the littlest insect."
Acidity is measured on the pH—literally, potential of Hydrogen—scale, which runs from acidic at its low end to alkaline at the high. Every value below 7, the neutral point, is increasingly acidic. The pH scale is exponential, so that pH 4.6 is 10 times more acidic than pH 5.6, and pH 3.6 is 100 times more acidic.
"Pure" water is slightly acidic, a pH of between 5.6 and 5.7, because the water molecules combine with carbon dioxide naturally present in the atmosphere and form weak carbonic acid. While scientists are not certain that rain was ever "pure"—for instance, a million years ago it may have had pHs as high as 6 or 7 as the result of free-floating alkaline dust—they do know that trouble begins when the acidification of precipitation is intensified. The median pH for precipitation in the Northeast is generally accepted to be 4.3. Although not "officially measured," the lowest recorded level for a single storm anywhere in the world is believed to have occurred in the fall of 1978 in Wheeling, W. Va. According to the U.S. EPA there, over the course of a three-day drizzle, pHs of under 2 were discovered, more than 5,000 times more acid than normal rain. For comparison, the pH of bottled lemon juice is 2.1.
Although data are meager, the evidence indicates that in the last 20 to 30 years the acidity of precipitation has increased in many parts of the U.S. At present, the U.S. annually discharges more than 26 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Just three states, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, are responsible for nearly a quarter of this total.
Overall, two-thirds of the sulfur dioxide in U.S. skies comes from gas-, coal-and oil-fired power plants. Other sources: industrial boilers, smelters and refineries, 26%; commercial institutions and residences, 5%; and transportation, 3%. Between now and the year 2000, utilities are expected to double the amount of coal burned.
At present, the U.S. pumps some 23 million tons of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Transportation sources account for 40%; power plants, 30%; industrial sources, 25%; and commercial institutions and residences, 5%. What makes these data even more disconcerting—and statistically unpredictable—is that emissions have trebled in the last 30 years.
In addition to sulfuric and nitric acids, acid precipitation often carries with it other products of combustion, such as lead, zinc, mercury, copper, cadmium and nickel, among other poisonous heavy metals. Besides dumping loads of such metals on once-balanced ecosystems, acid precipitation can also leach from the soil metals, notably aluminum, that are already present.
After the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, utilities often sought to meet its standards by building very tall stacks. The EPA calculates that there are now 180 stacks more than 500 feet tall as compared to only two in 1969. Tall stacks can relieve local air pollution, but they increase acid precipitation in downwind areas. In 1974, American Electric Power ran ads boasting that it was the "pioneer" of tall stacks. The ads proclaimed that the tall stacks dispersed "gaseous emissions widely in the atmosphere so that ground-level concentrations would not be harmful to human health or property." These emissions, American Electric Power said, are "dissipated high in the atmosphere, dispersed over a wide area, and come down finally in harmless traces." The ads derided "irresponsible environmentalists" who wanted strict controls over the emissions and accused them of "taking food from the mouths of the people to give [themselves] a better view of the mountain." Except for one thing: It's clear now that those "harmless traces" are not harmless.
The effect of acid precipitation on a body of water depends on the nature of the rock and soils in the watershed. A watershed containing readily available calcium and magnesium or carbonates weathered from limestone can buffer acid in much the way an Alka-Seltzer or a Rolaids tablet will neutralize an upset stomach. Some parts of North America, such as the Middle West with its more alkaline soils, have great buffering capacities, but there are other areas that have hard rock and/or infertile sandy soil, and these have minimal buffering capacity (see map on page 78). Geologic outcroppings and anomalies can make for vast differences within an area. How much acid precipitation it takes to acidify a specific body of water depends on that body's acid-neutralizing capacity, chemically measured as its total alkalinity. A lake with, say, 10 parts per million total alkalinity is low on alkalines, and in time acid can destroy it. Knowledge of the total alkalinity of a body of water and whether that alkalinity is decreasing is essential because pH can be a deceptive figure, dropping sharply only as buffering capacity is finally destroyed.
Snowfall can play a key role in acidification. Dr. Ernest W. Marshall, a geologist specializing in snow and ice, believes he can track different storms through the Adirondacks weeks after they have occurred by digging into the snowpack and examining individual storm layers. To Marshall, it's no coincidence that the Adirondack lakes that suffer most each spring lie on the range's western slope and receive the greatest snowfall. "The snow and ice store acids for three to four months," Marshall says, "and then when the spring melt comes, lakes and streams get one hell of a slug of acids. It's as though a pack-a-day smoker gave up cigarettes for four months and then tried to make up for what he had missed by smoking dozens of packs in just 10 days." High acid episodes during snowmelt are not unusual in lakes and streams that otherwise seem normal. In Norway, these episodes have been linked with large fish kills.
At 6.5 pH level, brook, brown, and rainbow trout experience significant reductions in egg hatchability and growth. At 5.5, largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes and rainbow trout are eliminated and declines in other trout and salmon populations can be expected. Below 5, most fish are unable to survive.
A low pH can cause female fish to retain their eggs, but even if the eggs are laid, mortality can be high in acidified waters because fish are ultra-sensitive in the egg, larval and fry stages. Ironically, as new year-classes of fish fail to develop, the older fish become bigger because of reduced competition for the food, and anglers will often report sensational catches.
Why do the fish die? Low pH by itself interferes with the salt balance freshwater species need to maintain in their body tissues and blood plasma. But apart from that, there's another factor at work: aluminum. Acid precipitation "mobilizes" (puts into circulation) aluminum, one of the most abundant metals in the crust of the earth, and as Dr. Carl Schofield, a Cornell University aquatic scientist, discovered, aluminum can be lethal to fish and other organisms at pH levels that are normally considered safe for the host fish themselves. Acidification also mobilizes mercury and cadmium, and fish that don't die may become poisonous to predators who eat them—including the human kind—because of the accumulation of such heavy metals in the fish's tissues.
Besides losing its fish life, it appears an acidified body of water also loses hundreds of other organisms, including insects, mollusks and certain types of algae. However, a few species can actually thrive. The water in an acidified lake is often a crystalline blue, but the bottom is sometimes carpeted with fibrous mats of algae, thick enough to be picked up and shaken like a rug. Bacteria that can thrive without oxygen live beneath such mats, where they decompose plant matter and produce gases that bubble to the surface in the summer months. "I suspect that this is the cause of the garbage-dump-like odor that wafts over the surface of some acidified Adirondack lakes during the warmest part of the year," says Brookhaven's Hendrey.
There's another bizarre touch: Tree leaves that fall into streams, lakes and ponds become pickled and simply stay there. The bacteria and fungi that would normally begin to break down the leaves are inhibited, and the same holds for stoneflies and other aquatic insects that eat leaf detritus. Given this, leaves can build up in a body of water, and as Hendrey says, "Acidification is accelerating the rate of the filling-in of ponds. The accumulation of material is abnormal, and it's increasing so rapidly that soon it may have negative effects for human beings."
Scientists at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Canada are attempting to document the most minute changes that occur in acidified lakes. In 1969, the Canadian government established the Experimental Lakes Area southeast of Kenora, Ontario by setting aside 46 lakes for scientific investigation of pollutants. Like thousands of other lakes in eastern Canada, ELA lakes are situated on the granitic Canadian geologic shield, and because they are remote from sources of pollution, they are basically undisturbed. Inasmuch as the hydrological, meteorological, chemical, biological and physical characteristics of all 46 lakes have been measured, any one of them can serve as an experimental laboratory, with others acting as controls. Early research in the ELA centered on the effects of phosphate detergents, which led to their reduced use in Canada, and in 1976 the emphasis shifted to the effects of acid precipitation. The scientists took one lake—it has no name, just the designation Lake 223—and over the course of the next four years added three metric tons of sulfuric acid to it. Dramatic changes have already occurred. The pH of 223 has dropped from 6.5 to 5.6; aluminum, zinc and other toxic metals have been mobilized and are present in increasing concentrations; a small mysid shrimp, an important food for lake trout, has disappeared, as has the fathead minnow; the population of slimy sculpins has dropped sharply; and there is a greater incidence of deformed lake-trout embryos.
Although the phenomenon of acid precipitation has been recognized only in recent years, it probably began about a century ago. Dr. Stephen A. Norton and his colleagues at the University of Maine have found buildups of lead and zinc far greater than the natural background levels in sediment cores extracted from the depths of New England and Scandinavian lakes. The cores show that the initial buildups began 100 years ago and then increased startlingly in the 1940s. In approximately 100 years lead has increased as much as 300% over the background level and zinc as much as 700%. Moreover, additional studies of the sedimentary remains of diatoms, microscopic one-celled algae, and of cladocerans, microscopic Crustacea, indicate "biological changes related to acidification of some of the lakes."
As early as 1872, Robert Angus Smith noted that coal burning in Great Britain caused acid precipitation, and shortly after the turn of the century English scientists C. Crowther and H.G. Ruston reported that "acid rain," the term they used, had killed or reduced the yields of timothy, radish, lettuce and cabbage grown near Leeds in the industrialized Midlands of Great Britain.
In 1959 a Norwegian fisheries inspector, A. Dannevig, first attributed the decline in fish in southern Norway to the increasing acidity of the water, but he had no idea that the acids came from the sky. At the same time Eville Gorham, a Canadian ecologist then in England and now at the University of Minnesota, published a number of papers demonstrating that acid precipitation could affect the buffering capacity of bedrock, soils and lakes.
But it was not until 1967 that Svante Odèn, a young colleague of pioneering Swedish atmospheric scientists Karl Gustav Rossby and Erik Eriksson, made the breakthrough that identified acid precipitation as a serious environmental threat. Odèn, who had been asked to do research on surface-water chemistry, theorized that the increasing acidity of Swedish waters was the result of atmospheric fallout of sulfates. The Swedish government asked him to write a report on his hypothesis, and while Odèn was working on it, he received a call from a fisheries inspector in western Sweden who asked, "Is it possible that a massive fish kill we have found could be related to the acid precipitation?" Odèn recalls. "That was a shock to me, because that was the first real indication that acid precipitation had an impact on the biosystem."
Odèn's report, issued in 1968, showed that acids emanating from Great Britain and West Germany were having a deleterious impact on Swedish rivers and lakes, particularly in the southwestern part of the country. The report created a sensation, and Odèn was invited to lecture at universities in the U.S., where other scientists, notably Dr. Gene E. Likens at Cornell and one of his graduate students, Charles Cogbill; Dr. F. Herbert Bormann of Yale; Dr. James N. Galloway of the University of Virginia; and Dr. Ellis Cowling at North Carolina State began investigating acid precipitation. Cowling was instrumental in the establishment of a National Atmospheric Deposition Program, which has a network of sampling stations across the U.S. and in Canada. Dr. Harold Harvey and Dr. Richard Beamish at the University of Toronto focused on lakes. Likens and his colleagues at Cornell were in a particularly advantageous location in upstate New York. Dr. Dwight Webster, a Cornell professor of fisheries science, had been working on several Adirondack lakes that had been losing their trout populations, and Schofield, the Cornell aquatic scientist, examined the data Webster had accumulated. As Webster says now, "Everything began to fall into place." In time, even utilities joined in. Since 1977, the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit arm of the utility industry, has funded $14.5 million in acid precipitation research.
Apart from being a threat to aquatic life, acid precipitation poses other problems, some of which are the concern of Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund headquarters in New York City. Oppenheimer recently gave up his post as an atmospheric chemist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. to join EDF so he could deal full time with acid precipitation and related issues.
"On certain days the air pollution from Los Angeles blows across the Southwest," says Oppenheimer. "Add that pollution drifting out of the L.A. basin to that from large power plants and smelters in the Southwest, and some of our best views in the West, such as the view of the surrounding ridges from within the Bryce Canyon National Park, are reduced. The haziness is caused by the microparticulates associated with acid precipitation. Congress was specifically concerned about this when it passed the Clean Air Act. There are possible effects on climate. Particulate matter reduces the penetration of sunlight, and I think it likely this will have some effect on climate in the Northeast and perhaps elsewhere.
"There are also possible adverse effects on human health. The first human-health effect is the inhalation of suspended microparticulates of nitrate and sulfate materials. For years asthmatics have gone West for their health, and the inhalation of microparticulates can affect asthmatics, old people and children. We're concerned now that fine particles are causing widespread health damage in the Northeast."
The "Northeast Damage Report," written for a consortium of Northeastern states by Jennie E. Bridge of the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission and F. Peter Fairchild of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, states "Human health is also directly impacted by sulfates and other fine particles transported in the atmosphere. Impacts range from serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases to death from cancer. High levels of sulfate in the Northeast, largely due to long-range transport into the region, contribute significantly to morbidity in the region. The probability of dying from air pollution-related diseases is twice as high in the Northeast than in other regions of the United States."
According to Oppenheimer, "A second adverse human health effect is the leaching of toxic materials into drinking water supplies, both ground and surface waters." In some parts of the U.S., homeowners obtain their drinking water from roof catchments that drain into cisterns. In Ohio, for example, there are 67,000 such systems. In a study of 40 catchment-cistern homes in Clarion and Indiana counties in western Pennsylvania, Dr. William E. Sharpe, a water resources specialist at Penn State, found that 28 homes, or 70%, had lead concentrations—already in the water when it arrived as rainfall—in their water supplies that exceeded the EPA's "safe" level (50 parts per billion). Nine of the homes had hazardous lead concentrations caused by acid corrosion of the plumbing. "People who rely on roof catchments have very definite problems," Sharpe says. "There are possible health effects, and there are economic costs. They're going to have to lay out $600 to $1,000 per household to make rudimentary changes.
"The rural sections of Clarion and Indiana counties have no public water supplies, and there's an irony here: Deep and surface coal mining has polluted the ground and surface waters so they're unfit to drink, and the people have turned to the sky as a last resort. It's the coal that's mined in the area and shipped to power plants that's coming back to kill their last resort."
Acid deposition readily affects metals, marble and limestone, and it is accelerating the degradation of buildings and monuments in the U.S. and abroad. Some of those affected in this country include the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and the Capitol. "The east side of the Capitol is white Lee marble from Lee, Mass.," says Dr. Erhard Winkler of Notre Dame. "There are craters one-quarter inch or more in it. It looks like shrapnel has hit it. What has happened is that because of acid precipitation, the hard minerals in the marble had changed to talc."
With one or two exceptions, the impact of acid precipitation on crops and forests has yet to be scientifically determined. There are more variables to contend with in terrestrial ecosystems than aquatic ecosystems. But ex-continued perimental work with simulated acid rain has shown a number of harmful effects on crops, such as the leaching of nutrients from foliage, the inhibition of nitrogen fixation essential to photosynthesis and the reduced yields of pinto beans and soybeans. Indeed, Dr. Lance Evans of New York's Manhattan College estimates that as a result of acid precipitation soybean farmers annually suffer a loss of $50 million because of a 1% reduction in yield.
Probably the most significant work on North American forests is that being done in the Green Mountains by Dr. Hubert Vogelmann and Margaret Bliss of the University of Vermont and Dr. Thomas E. Siccama of Yale. In a paper to be published in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club (a peer-review journal), they report a startling 50% dieback in red spruce on Camels Hump. Jay Peak, Bolton Mountain and Mount Abraham. The dieback has occurred in the last 15 years on land that the scientists had previously studied. "Examination of dying trees has not revealed disease organisms," they write. "The fact that trees of all ages become necrobiotic suggests that they are under environmental stress, but it is not clear what stress or stresses are involved.... Red spruce decline is especially pronounced at upper mountain elevations where precipitation is high and fog is of frequent occurrence. Studies currently underway in the Green Mountains indicate that both rain and fog at these elevations are highly acid.... Heavy metals (i.e., lead, copper and zinc) are known to be accumulating in forest soils at upper elevations. Since the environment of high elevations is normally fragile, it is possible that recent atmospheric pollution is sufficient to tip the balance of trees already growing in a stressed situation."
What's being done to curtail acid precipitation? A lot, in Canada. Canadians know they have a great deal to lose besides lakes and rivers. Forest products are the biggest industry in that country. The single largest source of sulfur dioxide emissions in North America is the International Nickel Company's nearly one-quarter-mile-high superstack, the tallest in the world, in Sudbury, Ontario. Every day the stack-spews 2,500 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and some of it reaches the U.S. The stack used to exude more than 5,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a day, but INCO is now under provincial orders to cut emissions to 1,950 tons a day by 1983 and make further reductions thereafter to the lowest feasible level. Until last year, provincial governments set the standards for emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides—much in the manner that the Reagan Administration is planning to propose that emissions regulations be established by individual states—but Canada amended that law in 1980, giving Parliament the authority to control sources that contribute to pollution "across national boundaries."
But Canada can't go it alone. Two-thirds of the sulfuric acid that falls there originates in the U.S., and Canada is waiting to see what the U.S. is going to do when Congress and the Administration reconsider the Clean Air Act, probably in December. If the utility industry has its way, the U.S. will not take effective action now.
Utility arguments against control of emissions sometimes are absurd, but the industry also presents the following seemingly cogent points:
•It is unclear whether precipitation is becoming more acid in the East. That's true, but there are large areas of the U.S. and Canada that can't endure anywhere near current levels of acidity without suffering further damage.
•Fish in Florida lakes with a low pH "show no sign of dying." Correct. What isn't said is that the fish are stunted and emaciated.
•The "three lakes in the Adirondacks" argument. This is a favorite of Dr. Ralph Perhac of the Electric Power Research Institute. On Feb. 27, 1980, Perhac testified before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that: "In EPRI's lake acidification study, we have found three lakes in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State which have very different acidities, yet these lakes lie within a few miles of each other and chemistry of the rainfall is the same at all three. Obviously some factor other than precipitation is responsible for the acidity." What Perhac didn't tell the Congressmen was that the three lakes in question—they happen to be Panther, Sagamore and Woods, Bill Marleau's old favorite—have different buffering capacities. On March 19, 1980. Perhac repeated the same testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution.
•Sudden acidification of a body of water, in itself, may not be responsible for fish kills. Perhac used this argument before both the House and Senate subcommittees last year, and he cited a case of a kill that occurred in the Tovdal River in Norway in early 1975. It's true that the sudden acidification "in itself," to quote Perhac's hedge phrase, didn't kill the fish. What Perhac didn't say was that it was determined that the likely killing agent was aluminum, mobilized by the acid snowmelt.
•Acid rain is turning up in remote parts of the world, such as Hawaii. Therefore acid rain is natural and industry cannot be blamed. This argument is completely irrelevant to the situation in the northeastern U.S., where natural sources are far too small to account for the observed sulfuric acid in precipitation. Yes, rain in Hawaii is acid, ranging from 5.2 at sea level to 4.3 at 7,500 feet, but the scientists who documented this, John O. Miller and Alan Yoshinaga of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have suggested that convective rainstorms may reach high up into the troposphere to precipitate pollutants coming from distant sources. Recently Canadian scientists reported that pollutants traveling 3,000 miles and more from Europe. Asia and possibly North America are causing a pervasive haze in the Arctic during winter and spring.
•A reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions in the Midwest and Northeast, say of 50%, wouldn't cause a 50% decline in suspended sulfates, wet sulfur deposition and acid precipitation in the Northeast. "it is true that there is not a one-to-one correspondence in reductions," says Oppenheimer, who has been studying the chemical transformation and deposition of sulfur, "but long-range transport models indicate that 50% reductions would lead to very significant decreases closer to 50% than to zero."
•Any acidified waters could be restored by liming. Liming is useful only on a limited Band-Aid scale for the preservation of unique fish populations. "It has its place currently in fishery management, but it isn't viewed as the solution to the problem," says Cornell's Schofield. Harvey of the University of Toronto says, "Let us dismiss out of hand that we can lime the northeast quadrant of a continent." Liming also doesn't answer the other threats posed by acid precipitation.
•"In 1980 two scientists who tested ice core samples concluded that acid rain existed long before the Industrial Revolution. They found the samples, which were taken from the Antarctic and the Himalayan Mountains, laden with acid. One sample was 350 years old." This "well-documented and proven information" is cited in the Edison Electric Institute's publication, Before the Rainbow: What We Know About Acid Rain. This information is false. It was based on an article that ran in The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 18, 1980. That story began, "Acid rain, a recent concern of environmentalists, has been pelting the earth for centuries, according to findings by two University of New Hampshire scientists." The two scientists referred to. Dr. Paul Mayewski and Dr. W. Berry Lyons, insist they made no such findings. "The story was extremely distorted," says Mayewski. "There were no significant heavy acid traces at all in the cores, and we stressed to the man from The Wall Street Journal that we were doing research on ice and snow, not rain and acid rain." Mitchell C. Lynch, whose byline appears on The Wall Street Journal story, stands by his piece as an accurate presentation of the information given to him by the scientists. On Oct. 1, 1980 the Journal used Lynch's article as a peg for an editorial declaring that the "theory" that acid rain is a result of industrialization "has just taken a couple of body blows from Mother Nature."
Others have taken up the cry. In a speech last May at an international acid rain conference at the State University of New York at Buffalo, William N. Pound-stone, executive vice-president of Consolidation Coal Company, cited "research by two scientists at the University of New Hampshire. They studied Antarctic and Himalayan ice cores, dating back 350 years. Here, clearly in the absence of fossil-fuel burning plants, they found pH values in the low 5s."
Industry representatives often use arguments such as the above to turn out articles that befuddle the public and legislators. Since they all seem to be reaching into the same old bag, it's sometimes difficult to discern who wrote what first. Two articles published back to back in Before the Rainbow: What We Know About Acid Rain, a 102-page paperback published by the Edison Electric Institute as part of its "Decisionmakers Bookshelf," are just about identical, word for word, page after page, except for the placement of some paragraphs.
Essentially that book is a compendium of articles intended to define the utility industry's stance on acid rain. Its tone is set by Editor Carolyn Curtis, who, after seizing upon the fact that "natural rain is somewhat acidic," writes, "So by all rights we should have been saying for years, 'It's acid raining outside,' or 'Take your umbrella. It's going to acid rain today.' This sounds preposterous, but it's true. Thus", our first understanding is that the strong verbal image, 'acid rain,' elicits more fear than it deserves."
Curtis also writes that "what has been printed on this subject ranges from good through mediocre to bad in terms of editorial consistency and scientific soundness.... The media—which have many fine writers, editors and, yes, thinkers—have painted for me an amusing portrait of two of our society's most distinguished professions. One is of a scientist who one day comes across some surprising information: that precipitation is higher in acidity than distilled water. He scratches his head and says, 'By golly, I've been wondering why all those fish have been disappearing!' The other is of a government lawmaker. He reads a report that scientists are learning rain has a higher acid content than they realized before. He looks up at a staffer and shouts, 'I knew it! It's those so-and-sos in industry. They've been sending stuff up in the air and now it's showering down on all of us.'
"If scientists and Congressmen were as overly reactive and quick to jump to conclusions as that, we would not have progressed beyond the alchemists and feudal system of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, if we knew all the scientific information there was to know and if every law had been passed, then those folks wouldn't have much to do."
Fred Johnson of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission says, "The utility companies responsible are dragging their feet and screaming and hollering that they need another 20 years of research. If we do that, it'll be too late.... They put out propaganda, and this confuses the public, which is going to suffer in the end. I just got another piece of garbage in the mail today from General Public Utilities."
The GPU's brochure that so exercised Johnson is called Take the Acid Test, and one of the questions it asks is: Is acid rain a problem in Pennsylvania? GPU's answer is, "The results of the studies to date are inconclusive and often downright contradictory. For example, the Pennsylvania Fish Commission is blaming increasing acidity in the rainfall for low fish populations in some streams. But Dr. Robert P. Pfeifer, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, views acid rain as a boon to the Pennsylvania farming community. He said that without the sulfur and nitrogen brought down by acid rain, Pennsylvania would become barren of most vegetation."
The utility industry has some formidable political allies on the state level, notably Ohio Governor James Rhodes, who has said that his state is no more to blame for acid rain than Florida is to blame for hurricanes. James F. McAvoy, former director of Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency, admitted to Congress last year that his state is the largest single emitter of sulfur dioxide in the nation, but he refused to concede that acid precipitation was "a very serious problem." McAvoy testified: "Despite the reported effects of acid rain on the environment we cannot afford to overreact to preliminary data, especially in light of our grave energy needs today.... We are aware that both the U.S. EPA and the White House have stated that it will take at least 10 years to accurately determine the extent, effects, sources and controls of this phenomenon. In our opinion, the 10-year figure may be overly optimistic...." Two months ago President Reagan nominated McAvoy for the Council on Environmental Quality.
What do Administration officials think about acid precipitation? In April of 1980. David Stockman, now the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, told a Washington meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers that he was "somewhat of a self-avowed heretic" who didn't belong to the "choir of the faithful committed to issuing melodious harmonies to the tenets of orthodoxy regarding the Clean Air Act." Addressing himself directly to acid rain, Stockman went on to say, "I kept reading these stories that there are 170 lakes dead in New York that will no longer carry any fish or aquatic life. And it occurred to me to question...well how much are the fish worth in the 170 lakes that account for four percent of the lake area of New York? And does it make sense to spend billions of dollars controlling emissions from sources in Ohio and elsewhere if you're talking about very marginal volume of dollar value, either in recreational terms or commercial terms?"
After Stockman finished, an NAM spokesman said he found it "encouraging to know that somebody who thinks like that is still in Washington and has something to say." Stockman has much to say now about any approach to acid rain. As director of the OMB he has oversight of all environmental regulations.
After the 1980 presidential elections, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada said he planned to discuss acid precipitation with the new President at the first meeting between the two. They met and talked in Ottawa in March, but the signs are that their discussion yielded little progress on acid precipitation problems. A month afterward, Robin Porter, the State Department's specialist on pollution problems with Canada, said that any treaty with Canada on transboundary air pollution was "at least three or four years away." Angry Canadian officials said that any such delay was unacceptable.
Several weeks later the Administration further angered the Canadians when it failed to send its official representative—Frederic N. Khedouri, Associate Director of the OMB for Natural Resources, Energy and Science—to an acid rain conference in Buffalo. Among those stood up by Khedouri was Dr. Mark MacGuigan, Canada's Secretary of State for External Affairs.
MacGuigan pointedly told the conference: "To...those who propound the view that economic and energy considerations make significant controls unfeasible, I would submit that significant emissions reductions, if wisely applied, need not detract from economic and energy goals. Nor should the legitimate costs of production be passed off to another party—in this case another country. This is spurious in economic terms and irresponsible in the spirit of international legal considerations.
"...acid rain is a serious bilateral issue because Canadians perceive that further delay in tackling the burgeoning threat of acid rain can result in further incalculable damage. Such delays would be particularly repugnant to Canadians if they were the result solely of narrow vested interests.
"...it was an international arbitration in the 1930s between Canada and the United States that provided what is still the clearest statement of the international law relating to air pollution. At the conclusion of the Trail Smelter Arbitration, in which Canada had previously accepted liability for damage caused [to farmers] in the state of Washington by fumes from a smelter in British Columbia, the arbitral tribunal stated that 'no state has the right to permit the use of its territory in such a manner as to cause injury by fumes in or to the territory of another, or the properties of persons therein....'
"I am certain that all responsible Americans accept that the rule of law should guide their relations with other countries as well as their internal activities. I am also certain that responsible Americans recognize that our mutual obligations must be met by dealing with the causes of acid rain to prevent further damage rather than concentrating on remedies for damage after it has occurred."
The next move is up to Congress. Of all those who have addressed the issue, Oppenheimer of EDF says it best: "We have taken a basic parameter of nature, snow and rainfall, which touches everything, and we have changed the acidity by a factor of 10 to 100 times over normal in the last half-century. Nature operates on a long time scale, but we have been making a host of changes at once, and all the cumulative effects of these changes on this country cannot be understood at once. This is a matter of grave concern. Acid precipitation is an incipient disaster of the first order, and if we don't do anything, within 10 years we'll start to see seriously significant effects beyond already manifest fishless lakes."