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 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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