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Does Secretary Muskie, like Senator Muskie, care about clean air?

By Phillip A. KennedyPhillip A. Kennedy is a Congressional Fellow in the US Senate. / July 25, 1980



In his short time as secretary ofstate, Edmund Muskie has demonstrated breadth and ability in foreign affairs. But he has yet to elucidate his own personal priorities in the office. One that we have yet to hear him stress is the environment, a cause that often occupied him as a senator.

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It would be logical to speculate that Mr. Muskie needs only an opportunity and just the right spark. If so, there is no environmental issue requiring his personal involvement more than the current acid rain controversy between the United States and Canada.

The issue could be resolved if it were a foreign policy priority.

America cannot expect to be regarded as a world leader in environmental affairs while a serious and growing problem remains unresolved in its own backyard. Furthermore, Prime Minister Trudeau is proposing constitutional changes, changes which may diminish Canada's ability to negotiate environmental issues in future if Secretary Muskie himself does not intervene, and soon.

The problem with acid rain is that it does not respect national boundaries. Both Canada and the US pollute each other. Currently one million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO[2]) originating in Canada crosses to the US, primarily to the East coast, each year. The US on the other hand sends four million tons to eastern Canada, especially to Quebec and Ontario.

In the atmosphere SO[2] mixes with other pollutants to form acid rain and snow and dry acidic deposition.

Acknowledging this, both Canada and the US pledged in June, 1979, not to damage the environment further through the increased use of coal. The following month the two governments officially announced their intention to develop a joint cooperative air quality agreement.

Only recently, Prime Minister Trudeau and Canadian Environment Minister John Roberts also pledged the Ontario government's cooperation in reducing emissions at the INCO smelter at Sudbury, Ontario. This was as important for pollution control as it was for asserting federal determination, for under present constitutional provisions in Canada the federal government lacks the authority to force the provinces to accept its environmental dictates.

The utility coal conversion bill, which is now before Congress, however, has undermined these accomplishments. America may be breaking a commitment, and Mr. Trudeau cannot hope to maintain, let alone increase, provincial cooperation on environmental issues at a time when the US is threatening to increase its share of transborder pollution.

If the bill becomes law, SO[2] could increase in some areas of the northeastern US by as much as 25 percent. Portions of this can be expected to kill more aquatic and plant life in Canada.

Equally serious, an unqualified US utility coal conversion bill could cause the Canadian provinces to insist on a continuation of environmental autonomy through this upcoming period of constitutional change. Why surrender authority to a federal government which appears incapable of winning US cooperation?

Secretary Muskie could change all this. By assuring the Trudeau government publicly that the utility coal conversion bill has no hope of passing Congress without more environmental safeguards -- which it currently does not have -- he could help strengthen Canadian federal authority at a crucial time. Further, by insisting that Congress spend an adequate portion of the windfall profits tax on pollution control, enough to ensure against increases in acid rain, he could further a coal conversion proposal on which we all can agree.

Mr. Muskie also could create air quality monitoring groups patterned after those preceding the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Perhaps more important, negotiating with Canada for a limit to transborder air pollution, if only SO[2], would help to correct one of the imperfections of Mr. Muskie's own Clean Air Act. At present the act is flawed in that it does not preclude states from polluting one another. A bilateral air quality agreement would be a step toward correcting this, for it is precisely what is needed among states. While still a senator, Mr. Muskie was working in the direction of just such modifications, and it is evident that he could still point the way.