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Original Issue


Acid rain was a primary topic at the April summit between President Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Acid rain bills are being debated in Congress. New studies further detail its invidious effects. Yet public officials still refuse to take the big step toward solving the problem: curbing the emissions that cause acid rain.

The U.S.-Canada summit was a whitewash. Mulroney wanted an agreement, which he didn't get, that would have placed limits on sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions from U.S. plants. It is estimated that more than half of the acid rain falling on Canada comes from U.S. sources, primarily coal-burning power plants in the Ohio River Valley, while only 10% of the acidic precipitation falling on the U.S. blows down from Canada. Reagan sought to appease Mulroney while not deviating from his own long-held position that we don't know enough about acid rain to set such limits. To that end, the President announced on the eve of the summit that he would seek congressional authorization to spend $2.5 billion over the next five years on acid rain projects.

This was not a new initiative. In March of 1986, Reagan told Mulroney that the U.S. would spend $5 billion—half from the federal government, half from the private sector—on acid rain. When the President called for only $350 million in his proposed budget in January, Mulroney scolded him. Now the President is merely saying that he will live up to the original agreement.

But Mulroney bought it, or pretended to. The Prime Minister said that Reagan's renewed pledge was "a matter of great satisfaction to the Canadian government." But what could be satisfying about it? In addition to being no more than a return to an old commitment, "acid rain projects" generally translates into "more study," not more action. On the last day of the summit, Reagan promised to consider a treaty proposed by Mulroney that would mandate cutbacks in emissions, but Reagan has been considering the issue—and demanding more study—for seven years.

Mr. President, the studies are in. Recent estimates by the federal Office of Toxology Assessment say some 50,000 Americans may die prematurely each year from diseases caused or exacerbated by airborne sulfates. According to the Interstate Legislative Committee on Acid Rain, new studies indicate that acid rain damages corn and leaches insecticides from the fields, causing farmers to spend more on chemicals. An Environmental Protection Agency study estimates that each year acid precipitation causes some $5 billion in damage to buildings in 17 states east of the Mississippi. Other recent EPA studies indicate some 9,000 lakes in the East and 7,000 in the West are acid rain sensitive. A month ago the EPA released a report that said sulfur dioxide emissions dropped only marginally in 1985.

Minnesota Democratic Representative Gerry Sikorski, author of a widely supported bill that would place limits on emissions, thinks the Reagan-Mulroney summit was counterproductive. "If there are going to be acid rain controls, they're going to be legislated by Congress," he says. "It's Congress that is undercut when our leaders do an acid rain jig that fades as fast as the camera lights. The President is the most powerful American opponent of acid rain controls."

Sikorski's Acid Deposition Control Act of 1986 had 171 cosponsors before it died in committee late last year. Three variations on the measure have already been introduced in the Senate this year, and Sikorski is working with allies to structure a bill that has a better chance of success in the House than did its predecessor. Sikorski's goal is a 50% cutback in the billions of tons of nitrogen and sulfur oxides that spew from U.S. utilities each year.

Despite sheaves of recent evidence reporting the effects of acid rain, proponents of controls continue to face hurdles. For instance, Robert Byrd, the Senate majority leader and a loyal son of coal-producing West Virginia, insists that "acid rain is not an emergency." If a House-Senate compromise bill makes it out of committee in this 100th Congress, Byrd is sure to work to defeat it. If the measure passes, the President will probably veto it.

Byrd professes to be "deeply concerned about the environment." The President claims his own concern is as deep as a stack of 2.5 billion dollar bills. Mulroney acts as though he is satisfied with a "new" $2.5 billion U.S. commitment. Everyone is throwing up acid rain smoke screens. The practice is contagious. In February, New York Attorney General Robert Abrams petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of eight states and four environmental groups to review a lawsuit brought by those states to force the EPA to order reductions in emissions from midwestern power plants. "The Reagan Administration has stubbornly ignored its obligations under the Clean Air Act to cut acid rain," Abrams told the court, which has yet to respond to the petition.

What Abrams did not tell the court was that New York State had decided, even before the suit against the EPA was filed, to permit Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc. to start burning coal instead of natural gas at two units of its plant in the Hudson Highlands, 30 miles north of Manhattan. The state said that the plant could emit as much as 15,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a year, which would worsen the acid rain problem not only in the already beleaguered Highlands but also in neighboring states. Environmental groups fought the state permit but lost in court. The winning lawyer was Robert Abrams. The plant is in the process of converting to coal.

No effective solution to acid rain will be found as long as public officials continue to say the politically expedient thing and then quietly undercut their words with their deeds.