A meeting of environmental experts and other representatives from 32 Eastern states and Canada this week offered encouraging evidence that the problem of "acid rain" is starting to be taken seriously. Some 200 years of air pollution from rapid industrialization has fed the steadily growing but only recently publicized phenomenon by which acids from coal and other fossil fuels are carried hundreds of miles through the air before being returned to earth in rainfall and other forms of precipitation.
US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Douglas Costle warns that destruction of lakes and vegetation caused by acid rain in some parts of the US is already severe and could intensify if greater attention is not focused on the problem. Canadians as well as state officials in New England and the mid-Atlantic states are particularly concerned that acid rain from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, with more relaxed pollution standards, is being swept over their regions. Lakes in New York State's Adirondack Mountains have been especially hard hit. Fish and other forms of life in the fresh water lakes have been killed, and some lakes are said to have become so polluted that they can no longer support fish life.
Environmental officials say the technology exists for ridding power plant emissions of the nitric and sulphuric oxides that produce acid rain. New power plants are built with the necessary pollution controls. The primary problem is with older existing plants, which put five times as many pollutants into the atmosphere. They can be retrofitted with coal and flue gas scrubbing devices that will make their emissions harmless. But, to date, Congress and the White House have exhibited little enthusiasm for requiring such protective measures.
Acid-rain safeguards are not included in President Carter's $10 billion proposal to convert oil burning utilities and power companies to coal. Provisions for requiring pollution controls on older coal-fired plants were deleted from the Carter plan in response to opposition from coal producing states and the Department of Energy, concerned that no impediments be put in the way of the needed conversion of utilities to coal.
With acid rain already a serious and growing threat in the US and Canada, the coal conversions that would stem from the Carter program would increase acid rain -- in some sections by as much as 16 percent. There is still time enough for Congress to include proper safeguards in the conversion program. The EPA has pledged to vigorously enforce clean air standards and should do so on a regional rather than state by state basis if necessary. The EPA-sponsored meeting this week was a good first step.