SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
September 21, 1981
A 1906 murder on Big Moose Lake inspired the Theodore Dreiser novel. Now acid precipitation is killing that lake—and many other bodies of water in the U.S. and Canada. These deaths are no less of...
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September 21, 1981

An American Tragedy

A 1906 murder on Big Moose Lake inspired the Theodore Dreiser novel. Now acid precipitation is killing that lake—and many other bodies of water in the U.S. and Canada. These deaths are no less of...

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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."

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