Congress to look anew at acid rain Pollutant called threat to ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay

January 18, 1998|By Mark Helm | Mark Helm,HEARST NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- With world attention focused on global warming, some members of Congress are quietly taking up another environmental fight that most people thought was finished years ago: acid rain.

Caused when pollution mixes with water in the air and falls back to earth, acid rain has been blamed for the deaths of entire mountainsides of trees and hundreds of lakes, primarily in the Northeast.

By 1990 the problem had became so widespread that Congress enacted sweeping amendments to the 1970 Clean Air Act that required dramatic cuts in sulfur dioxide, the pollutant believed at the time to be the main component of acid rain.

The program required industry, particularly utility companies, to cut annual sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 10 million tons below 1980 levels by 2005.

By all accounts the reduction program has been a major success, with industry having cut its annual SO2 emissions by more than 5 million tons - far ahead of schedule.

In addition, the reductions have cost industry only a fraction of what many experts had predicted when the laws went into effect in 1991.

The only problem is that the trees and lakes keep dying.

A 1995 report by the Environmental Protection Agency found that under current conditions up to 45 percent of the lakes in the Adirondack Mountains in New York will be too acidic to support most aquatic life by 2040.

The report also concluded that acid rain threatens other ecosystems, including parts of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.

So despite the success of the SO2 reduction plan, acid rain keeps killing trees and lakes.

The reason, according to Greg Lawrence, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Troy, N.Y., is that the 1990 amendments went after only half of the problem. The other half is nitrogen oxide, he said.

"What you have is ... a failure to really cut the nitrogen oxide emissions, which are the other main ingredient in acid rain," he said.

Researchers didn't realize how much of a threat nitrogen oxide FTC emissions were to forests and lakes until the early 1990s, Lawrence explained.

"By that time, it was too late to get big reductions in [nitrogen oxide] emissions in the laws passed by Congress," he said.

As a result, the 1990 amendments required industry to cut annual nitrogen oxide emissions by only 2 million tons below 1980 levels by 2000. So while the sulfuric acid level in an average rain drop is down, the nitric acid level has stayed about the same.

What this means for forests and lakes in much of the Northeast is that the acidity levels in rain have only decreased slightly - not nearly enough to stop many trees and lakes from dying.

"What we have now is a situation where a few areas are showing minimal recovery, some are staying about the same and some are getting worse," Lawrence said.

He said the lakes and soil showing slight recovery are in Maine and Vermont, which have always been subjected to less acid rain than areas farther west.

The lingering problems have prompted Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, to introduce a bill to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 50 percent below the levels required by the current law and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 70 percent of 1990 levels by 2003. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, has introduced similar legislation in the House.

Moynihan noted that the New York State Constitution says the Adirondack State Park "shall be kept forever wild. But if it's forever wild and dead, we will not have kept our promise."

The EPA has also proposed new rules that would require 22 states, mostly in the Midwest and the Northeast, to reduce their output of nitrogen oxide emissions.

Richard Pouyat, an ecologist on Moynihan's staff, said the senator supports the EPA proposal but would prefer to have the nitrogen oxide and SO2 reductions put into law. "The problem with going with the EPA rules is that the agency can always change its mind," Pouyat said. But the push by the lawmakers and the EPA to add further SO2 and nitrogen oxide emission cuts has angered many industry groups.

John Kinsman, manager of the atmospheric science division of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry lobby group, said scientific evidence doesn't support making such deep emission cuts.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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