To decrease acid rain, cut smokestack emissions

By , George J. Mitchell, a Democrat, is a US senator from Maine.

Since October 1981, when I introduced the first legislation to reduce acid rain in the eastern half of the US by reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide in that region, the weight of scientific evidence has become sufficient to produce broad agreement that the problem is real and serious and requires immediate action. That's good news. The Reagan administration, reversing its previous reluctance to move on the problem, seems about to announce a proposal of its own. That in itself would also be good news - though, if early news reports are accurate, it would fall far short of what's needed.

But misinterpretations and misunderstandings about the nature of acid rain and what to do about it remain widespread. They need to be cleared away so as not to hinder and weaken our ability to meet the problem fully and fairly.

* Geography and sources. Certainly, proximity of affected areas to sources of sulfur dioxide is a factor in the amount of acid rain they receive. Yet rainfall with 10 times or more acid than normal falls in 31 eastern states - in many lakes and streams all along the Appalachians, across much of the South, in the Ozarks, and in the upper Midwest. The coal-burning states of the Midwest are a hub closely rimmed by these sensitive areas. A ton of sulfur cut from smokestack emissions in New England has almost no effect outside that area. But a ton cut from a Midwest stack will reduce deposition in all surrounding areas.

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New York and New England are responsible for about 7 percent of sulfur emissions in the eastern half of this country. The nine major coal-burning Midwest states contribute nearly two-thirds, mostly through tall utility stacks. Per ton emitted, Midwest sources may have a smaller effect on acid rain in New England than New England sources do, but they emit so much more sulfur that they dominate as an acid rain source. The central contributing role of the heavy coal-burning states is therefore crucial in solving what is a regional - eastern United States - problem. A recent National Academy of Sciences report notes that a specific source cannot be tied to acid rain in a specific area. It likewise indicates that the 50 percent acid rain reduction it calls for is beyond reach anywhere without participation of all significant-source states. That's also why any fair solution will involve reductions not only in the Midwest but also in those Northeastern states with a sizable contribution to the present situation. For example, if utility emissions alone were cut, New York's reductions under my bill would exceed 40 percent.

* Solutions and costs. My legislation, for one, simply requires a reduction in sulfur emissions (10 million tons over 10 years in a 31-state area), leaving it to the states and industries affected to choose the means of achieving it. Two basic methods are available. A utility could install scrubbers, which remove sulfur after coal is burned; that is expensive and would increase electric power rates. Or a utility could switch from high-sulfur coal. These two methods are, of course, mutually exclusive at any one plant: Use of scrubbers makes a switch to low-sulfur coal unnecessary, and vice versa.

When the utility industry looks at cost, it regularly assumes that compliance with eventual abatement laws would occur through installation of scrubbers, thereby causing a maximum increase in utility rates. Just as regularly, the coal industry assumes compliance would come through coal switching, with a maximum loss of jobs in high-sulfur coal-mining areas. And spokesmen for both industries sometimes add these two adverse effects to conjure up a worst-case scenario that simply cannot occur. In such ways is the economic impact of meaningful solutions exaggerated.

Electricity rates in the Northeast are in any case already much higher than in the Midwest due partly to the anti-pollution use of low-sulfur fuels. Fuel costs average two or three times higher for New York than for Midwest utilities; sulfur emissions per unit of energy produced in New York are two to three times lower. Total emissions in the Northeast have fallen 40 percent in 20 years.

Coal-burning Midwest states are now the most cost-effective locus for sulfur dioxide reductions. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment reports that an annual 50 percent utility emissions cut confined to New England would raise some electricity rates there by up to 8 percent while reducing sulfur emissions by 400,000 tons. In Indiana alone, the report says, the same reductions and resulting rate increases would remove 700,000 tons.

No sensible person will argue that dealing effectively with acid rain is not going to cost all of us some money (just as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts do). The fairest and most efficient solution will take into account the proportionally greater contribution of large-source states to the regional acid rain problem and require some further reductions in the Northeast. Meanwhile, it is costing the country more to do nothing about the problem than to solve it.

Now that basic agreement exists about the need for prompt action on acid rain , eliminating the remaining erroneous perceptions about solutions is the next important step in eliminating the problem itself.

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