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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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.

•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.

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