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AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY
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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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."

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