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'rain, Rain Go Away...'

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ENVIRONMENT[image, unknown] The acid rain impact

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'Rain, rain go away...'
Acid rain, the deadly combination of industrial pollutants and normal rainfall, has etched its way into public consciousness only recently. Yet, the long-term damage is already well under way. Phil Weller examines the environmental and human impact of acid rain and the mounting public pressure to stop it.

WHEN newly elected President Ronald Reagan hopped across the border to Ottawa in March 1981, on his first diplomatic mission outside the US, he was met by-the largest, most boisterous protest Canadians have ever afforded a foreign head of state. Amidst the chanting and the catcalls the President stared directly into an enormous white banner which explained at least part of the reason for his inhospitable welcome. Printed in large red letters on the banner were the simple words: ‘Stop Acid Rain’.

Normal rain turns acid when sulphur and nitrogen oxides are released from ore smelters, coal-fired generating stations, automobiles and oil and gas refineries. Mixed with water vapour in the air these pollutants can increase the acidity of rain by as much as 40 times. Showing no respect for national boundaries acid rain constitutes a major US export to Canada — an export the Parliament Hill protesters told Mr Reagan was definitely unwanted.

But the acid rain threat is not confined just to Canada. In fact it’s an ecological disaster in much of the industrialised world. In the most extreme example recorded — a storm in Scotland — the rain was the acidic equivalent of vinegar.

Once part of the natural cycle of regeneration and growth, raindrops are now tipping the precarious ecological balance. Acid rain is a quiet, insidious killer. In the rugged Canadian Shield country- south of Sudhury. Ontario hundreds of magnificent lakes are slowly- turning into aquatic deserts. Already over 140 Ontario lakes are virtually dead— devoid of all organic life except for a smooth carpet of algae slowly spreading across silent lake bottoms. Major Canadian and Scandinavian salmon rivers have been destroyed. In over 170 lakes in the Adirondack Mountains of the Northeastern US, fish have been eliminated.

Acid rain is also quietly threatening forests and crops. In Sweden forest growth has declined measurably in recent decades. One research team concluded, ‘We have found no other reason for attributing the reduction in tree growth to any cause other than acidification.’ Visible scars have been observed on leafsurfaces of plants exposed to acid rain. In the United States the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found acid rain damage in apples, tomatoes, radishes, beets, carrots. mustard, greens and broccoli.

But the effects are not limited only- to the natural environment. Acids attack marble. limestone and granite, eating away hundreds of years of history. Some of Europe’s most treasured buildings are being seriously damaged by acid rain’s corrosive powers. It is estimated that acids have aged the Acropolis in Greece more in the past few decades than in the previous 2,000 years.

Steel and other metals also corrode more quickly when exposed to acid rain. The US Council on Environmental Quality’ estimates over $2 billion worth of structural damage from acid rain is caused each year in the United States.

The Acid Rain Cycle

The environmental and social costs of acid rain are sky rocketing. Yet smokestacks continue to belch millions of tons of sulphur and nitrogen oxides. North America receives over33 million tons of sulphur oxides and 24 million tons of nitrogen oxides per year. About 85 per cent of that originates in the US. The major sources, coal and oil-fired generating stations, have nearly’ quadrupled their output of the pollutants over the past 25 years.

In Europe similar amounts of sulphur and nitrogen are released: mote than 33 million tons of sulphur in 1978 alone. As in North America, most of these oxides come from burning sulphur- laden coal. These pollutants can travel thousands of miles to other countries where they eventually fall as acid rain. Canada, for example, receives most of its acid rain from south of the border. Norway, one of the most hard-hit areas receives over 90 per cent of its acid rain from Britain and Germany.

Technology does exist to stop these pollutants. According to the US EPA, ‘desulphurization technology' can now screen out up to 90 per cent of sulphur dioxide emissions.’ Nevertheless companies base been reluctant to adopt preventative technology, citing high costs as the main objection.

Technology to curtail pollution from metal smelters also exists. In 1975, the International Nickel Company- (INCO) in Sudbury. Ontario (the world’s largest single source of sulphur emissions) developed a plan to reduce their daily 2,500 ton sulphur output by 200 tons. The proposal was later rejected as ‘uneconomical’. At the same time a government report estimated that sulphur pollution from the INCO stack had caused $465 million worth of damage in the Sudbury region— damage that INCO would not have to pay- for. Still the government continues to treat INCO with kid gloves, periodically delaying deadlines for meeting emission standards.

Instead of adopting pollution-control measures companies choose to invest where they’ can make a profit. The enormous social and environmental costs are left to the public purse. From the companies’ point of view’, says Ontario environmental official Jack Donnan. ‘there are always better and more productive uses for available cash than pollution abatement.

INCO is a case in point. At the same time it was pleading poverty on pollution controls, the company took over the largest battery manufacturer in the US — E.S.B. Ray-O-Vac. For INCO, the $238 million deal w-as a sound business investment. For the dying lakes in northern Ontario and other downwind areas, the deal made no sense at all. Quipped INCO Vice President Stuart Warner, ‘pollution control would have only been contemplated as a social investment. And who knows how to evaluate a social investment?'

Both government and industry continue to avoid the enormous social and environmental costs their pollution creates. According to an Ontario Environment Ministry report over 20,000 jobs in the tourist and resort industry will be lost if acid rain continues at the present pace. In Norway a major portion of the fishery industry has already been eliminated.

In Britain, Germany and the Netherlands governments have been equally lax in forcing industry to control polluting emissions. In Britain, where so-called ‘super smokestacks’ have been a major part of pollution ‘control’ programmes, increased use of coal will drastically accelerate acid rain in Scandinavia The giant smokestacks don’t solve the problem; they only spread it further afield.

Fortunately, alternatives do exist Pollution control equipment is available. And much research and ingenuity has been expended to find ways of generating energy that do not create pollution which leads to acid rain The wind, the sun, the use of conservation to reduce the need for energy are all non-polluting alternatives to fossil-fuelled generating stations.

But acid rain is also a political problem — it requires public pressure against polluting companies and against hesitant governments which are unlikely to move without being pushed. In Canada, the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, a collection of public interest group, was formed to pressure both Canadian and US politicians. US environmental and labour groups under the banner of the Clean Air Coalition have also been actively challenging business efforts to relax pollution standards. And in May, 1981 a number of environmental groups gathered in Sweden for a European Conference on Acid Rain.

The problem has been diagnosed and the message is clear. The main task now - is to make sure it’s loud enough for government and industry to hear.

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Phil Weller worke with the Waterloo Public Interest
Research Group and is author of Acid Rain, The Silent Crisis.

Worth reading on... THE ENVIRONMENT

The World Environment 1972-82, A Report by the UN Environment Programme. Published by Tycooly- International, Dublin. 1982. A massive 630 page review of the global environment with lots of good factual data but little analysis. A handy reference work.

Down to Earth — Environment and Human Needs. By Erik Eckholm: Pluto Press, London, UK, 1982. A well-written, journalistic approach to the major environmental issues of the past decade with a good introductory chapter on the links between poverty and ecological destruction. In many ways a more approachable version of the above.

Ecology as Politics. By André Gorz: Black Rose Books, Montreal, Quebec, 1980. A wide-ranging series of collected essays by one of the leading figures in the French ecology movement, The essays are often startling in their novelty and intellectual rigour though they are occasionally very dense. Nonetheless an excellent work.

Socialism and Ecology, By Raymond Williams; SERA, 9 Poland Street, London. 1982. A short, fascinating pamphlet by one of Britain’s eminent culture critics. Williams offers a stinging rebuke of the traditional socialist argument that economic growth and material production must continue until social inequality is abolished.

The Closing Circle. By Barry Commoner; Alfred A Knopf and Bantam, New York, 1972. One of the best early books by the well-known American environmental spokesman. Especially good on the nature of technology and wasteful production in modern consumer societies.

Only One Earth — The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. By Barbara Ward and Rent Dubos, Penguin, UK, 1972. The book that kicked off the first global environment conference in Stockolm ten years ago is still a classic of its kind. A powerful argument for the inter relationship of man and nature and the need to tackle global poverty.

Friends of the Earth
Sylvia Collier introduces an organization which in barely a decade, has become one of the worlds leading environmental pressure groups.

EARLY last year British supporters of Friends of the Earth assembled a grim cargo: thousands of bones of dead animals, weighing together more than a ton, a vivid spectacle of destruction, they carried the bones to government offices and dumped them there — a bleak plea for control of trade in endangered species.

The stunt was typical of the flamboyant media-catching tactics Friends of the Earth have chosen to force their message home. In a decade of campaigning FOE has lured the media into good humoured coverage of their activities, providing irresistible phototargets such as inflatable whales, paper mountains, massive Coca-Cola cans and bicycle cavalcades How seriously ifs all taken is another question.

By the mid 1970s FOE groups in Canada, the US, France and Australia were attacking pollution and protecting wildlife, recycling paper and glass, promoting the effective use of energy sources and lobbying governments There are now more than two dozen FOE groups in countries around the world.

One of FOEs newest organisations is in Japan — the largest consumer of whale products Following the International Whaling Commission’s decision to halt the hunting of certain whale species, FOE is now spearheading an aggressive campaign for a Japanese ban on whale products.

In Britain, small groups of Friends of the Earth activists have spent hours collecting hundreds of throwaway bottles in an effort to combat use of non- returnable containers by drinks manufacturers And in one case dumped 1500 of them firmly back on the doorstep of their manufacturer— Schweppes. In other areas they set up wholefood co-operatives, organic farms and waste paper collection.

However FOE, along with other environmentalist movements, is now attempting to broaden its scope and analysis.

‘Conservationists have been criticised for failing to relate their concerns to the lives of ordinary people,’ says British campaign director Steve Billcliffe. ‘We want to show how employment the cost of living and the quality of life are affected by failure to take the environment into account’

FOE’s campaigners also intend to shift international campaigns on agricultural and wildlife from particular species to better protection for their natural habitat.

All this has led Friends of the Earth to an ambitious plan to take on international business interests involved in deforestation. They have commissioned research to identify trading and retailing companies involved in tropical rain forest destruction in Central America, Africa, and South East Asia. These forests contain an estimated five to eight million of the species on earth.

Felled for the timber trade to provide specialised woods and mass production materials for wood chip and plywood, tropical forests are disappearing at the rate of 50 hectares every minute.

Friends of the Earth has a varied range of environmental campaign to appeal to a broad spectrum — from people with a gentle interest in improving the quality of their lifestyle to politically committed activists.

As Steve Billcliffe admits, ‘FOE sells a number of products We sell different things to different people but ifs all in the name of environmental issues We sell non-nuclear energy policy to one sort of customer. But there are other people who rank the plight of an endangered species with equal importance’

The real sticking point however, is political pressure. We have to keep it up Billcliffe stresses, On political parties, through the media, by embarrassing leaders of opinion whether they are— in city hall Whitehall or the White House. That's what campaigning is about. It’s there to change things’

For more in formation contact the Friends of the Earth offices.

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New Internationalist issue 114 magazine cover This article is from the August 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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