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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

TORONTO, ONTARIO—Acid rain, acid rain, acid rain! “It’s the biggest thorn between our two countries and getting bigger,” says a provincial official.

The early signs of increasing acid rain show up as fishless lakes. At least 140 lakes in Ontario no longer have fish. Aquatic life in nearly 50,000 lakes could be extinguished next unless effective pol­lution controls can be established.

Canadians say that most of the pollutants that lead to acid rain—namely the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that combine with cloud moisture to form sulfuric and nitric acids—come from the Middle Western parts of the United States, particularly from the high-stack, coal-burning utilities in the Ohio Valley. These acidic rains fall over upper New York State, Ontario, Quebec and parts of New England.

The largest single source of sulfur emis­sions in North America is the Ina). Ltd. nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario. One way the Ontario government is emphasiz­ing its concern over what it perceives to be too little interest in the problem by the U.S. government is by cracking down on Inco. That company’s emissions have de­clined from two million metric tons per year in 1969 to 1.2 million in early 1978 to a projected 647,000 metric tons by the end of 1982.

But Ontario’s law enforcement cannot reach into the United States, where at least two-thirds of the pollutants causing acid rain ’emanate. Moreover, Canadian officials are becoming alarmed and out­raged over the Reagan administration’s moves to further weaken air pollution standards, give more waivers to polluters, and ignore a memorandum of agreement signed last August between the two gov­ernments to develop an enforceable, bi­lateral treaty to combat transboundary air pollution.

One particular statement by Reagan’s budget ‘director, David Stockman, is re­peated over and over again in the Cana­dian press. Stockman said: “I keep read­ing these stories that there are 170 lakes dead in New York…Well, how much are the fish worth in these 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 a very marginal volume of dollar value…?”

Keith Norton, Ontario minister of the environment, scarcely contained his con­tempt for Stockman’s ignorance at a con­ference last May at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He promised Stock­man that the economic losses far exceeded the loss of lake fish or the devastating, perhaps permanent, effect on the lakes. There are, he said, “the dollars in lost business in our tourism and outdoor rec­reation industry; the costs of damage to manmade structures; the potential loss of crops and trees; and, if our worst fears are borne out, the impact on human health….”

Studies have shown that acid rain can leach heavy metals like lead and copper into drinking water, as New York’s attor­ney general declared was occurring in sec­tions of upstate New York.

Raymond Robinson, assistant deputy minister for environment in the Canadian national government, pointed out the peril to one of his country’s largest indus­tries. “The great boreal forest of the Ca­nadian shield is low in key elements such as calcium and magnesium. These elements are being leached out of soils at an accelerated rate by acid rain.”

Ontario has taken the unusual steps of legally intervening before the U.S. Envi­ronmental Protection Agency to oppose relaxation of emissions levels governing 18 power plants in the Midwest. The province has filed other similar legal inter­ventions recently.

What does the coal industry say about acid rain? Basically, that little is known about its cause, its extent, its increase or its harm. Much more research needs to be done. The National Coal Association digs in its heels saying that it “opposes any attempt by legislation or regulation to im­pose more stringent sulfur dioxide emis­sion limits to alleviate the alleged ‘acid rain’ problem until more data and scien­tific analysis have become available.”

The NCA need not worry about more stringent standards. Ronald Reagan has just asked Congress to go the other way and weaken existing controls.

An excellent pamphlet explaining acid rain is available free. It is called How Many More Lakes Have to Die? and can be obtained by writing to the Embassy of Canada, Washington, D.C.