A battle of charts and graphs on what to do about acid rain

Reagan administration officials are involved in an intramural scrimmage over what to do about the perplexing problem of acid rain. William D. Ruckelshaus, chief of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) , favors a government acid rain control program to protect lakes in the Northeast United States and Canada. But David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has launched an effective counterstrike against the EPA position, emphasizing cost: from $2 billion to $20 billion, depending on the approach.

Late last month, ''Ruckelshaus walked into the Cabinet Council meeting on acid rain with a pile of editorials saying why we had to do something about the problem,'' says an administration official privy to the decisionmaking. ''Then in walked Stockman with a spiral notebook for everyone present, including four-color graphs and charts on why it's not worth the money until more research is in. He even had it broken down to cost per fish.''

Yesterday, Mr. Ruckelshaus admitted to a group of Midwest governors that the administration's acid rain battle plan had been delayed - but added that he still expected to soon announce the effort.

That the White House is even considering a proposal for government action on acid rain is a 180-degree turnaround. Until recently, administration officials insisted any cleanup efforts would simply be a leap in the dark, since so little was known about the causes and effects of acid precipitation.

But a number of scientific studies released this summer have shed much light on the subject. The National Academy of Sciences, for instance, released a long-awaited report that concluded that most of what comes down as acid rain went up somewhere as man-made air pollution. But the academy said it couldn't determine who the chief culprits were in the acid rain problem - Midwest power plants, or sources closer to the hard-hit northeastern US and Canada.

A White House advisory panel of scientists has recommended that the US take some tentative steps now to control acid rain, to head off the possiblity of long-term environmental damage. The Cabinet Council on Natural Resources and the Environment is considering a number of acid rain control options, ranging from a small $10 million-a-year research and lake-treatment program, to legislation requiring large cuts in sulfur-dioxide emissions across 48 states - a move that could cost $7 billion annually by 1993.

But the front-runners, according to administration officials and environmental group sources, are proposals that call for emission rollbacks in limited areas of the Northeast. One proposal, for instance, would mandate a cutback of 3.4 million tons of sulfur-dioxide pollution from projected 1990 levels. Ten states - New England, plus Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania - would be affected; methods of meeting the goal would be left up to them. The EPA estimates that such a program would cost $2 billion a year, and it predicts that acid rain in the problem area of New York's Adirondack Mountains would be cut 25 percent.

But Mr. Stockman doesn't think the effort is worth the money, and he has assembled a list of catchy statistics to make his point. An OMB briefing book estimates the limited program would cost from $6,000 to $10,000 for each pound of fish protected from acid rain.

The budget office recommends the administration stay with its old stance: that more research is necessary before anything can be done. The choice is now expected to be made sometime late this month. One source says the administration may choose to do nothing, and wait for the US House of Representatives to act: The environment subcommittee of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D) of California is expected to approve sweeping acid rain control legislation this fall.

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