Boston — ``Acid rain is the `Silent Spring' of the 1980s,'' declares Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. This comparison to the dangers of uncontrolled pesticide use that the late Rachel Carson warned about in her famous 1962 book is just one tactic being used by the Democratic governor and others to rally public support for state, regional, and federal action to stop acid rain at its sources -- chiefly, industrial and power-plant smokestacks and automobile tailpipes.
And they are getting action, in spite of the Reagan administration's refusal to propose a national program before obtaining more information on the sources, extent, and effects of the problem.
``Acid rain'' is a blanket term for natural processes through which pollutants in the atmosphere are converted into substances, among them nitric and sulfuric acids, which are then spread over wide areas by prevailing winds and borne to earth far from their sources. In recent months there have been a number of straws in the prevailing winds at the federal, regional, and even international levels:
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is spending $65 million in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 on research projects to identify ``sensitive'' areas and study the effects of acids, nitrates and sulfates, ozone, and heavy metals on forests, soil, and bodies of water. The proposed federal budget for fiscal 1986 contains $85 million for continuing research.
Leaders of Northeastern states and Canada's Eastern provinces are pushing ahead with programs to control their own sources of acid deposition -- assuming that their admonitions to states that ``export'' pollution are more likely to be heeded if they clean up their sources at home.
A number of acid-rain bills have been introduced in Congress this year. Typical of them is HR 1030, filed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) of Massachusetts. Its purpose is ``to reduce emission of sulfur dioxide by 12 million tons within 10 years and to reduce emission of oxides of nitrogen by 4 million tons within 12 years.''
In Quebec City, at a recent international conference on acid rain, representatives from 15 states and seven Canadian provinces showed an impressive commitment to working out mutual problems. James Hoyte, Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs, said at the end of the meeting that a ``multinational program'' to reduce acid rain will be presented at a June meeting of eastern Canadian premiers and New England governors in St. Andrews, N.B. ``We're not going to wait for action by Washington,'' Mr. Hoyte said.
The US and Canadian acid-rain ``envoys'' appointed in March by President Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney were invited to appear at the Quebec City conference. But the two men -- former US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and former Ontario Premier William G. Davis -- declined, indicating that they felt they should first meet in private. Such a meeting apparently has yet to occur.
Meanwhile, researchers continue to find new evidence of damage to waterways and forests. Although the most serious effects have been documented in the upper Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States and the Eastern provinces of Canada, few areas in North America are untouched. A recent report by the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., cited three areas of the Mountain West as ``particularly vulnerable'' to acid rain and associated pollutants: the Cascades, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada. Metal smelters in Arizona and across the border in northern Mexico are cited as sources of pollution that affects lakes and forests in the Rockies. California's millions of automobiles produce much of the pollution that is causing lakes in the Sierras to become more acidic. Results of a survey of more than 4,500 Massachusetts lakes, ponds, and streams were released in mid-April. They showed that 5.2 percent of the waterways have no alkalinity and are considered ``dead,'' according to Paul J. Godfrey, coordinator of the state's Acid Rain Monitoring Project.
In one of the first major reports on acid rain effects in the US, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment said in 1982 that of 17,059 ``sensitive'' lakes it had identified in 23 Eastern states, some 9,400 had been altered by acid rain or were ``seriously at risk'' because of acidity. So were some 60,000 miles of the 117,000 miles of streams in the area the OTA studied.
Less is known about the effects on trees of acid rain and other pollutants, but researchers have begun to look for the causes behind irregular growth patterns, deterioration, and even die-off of red spruce, pines, and hardwood trees such as maple, especially at high altitudes. Attrition in the forests of Central Europe, especially the Black Forest in southwest Germany, are cited by researchers as examples of what ``we don't want to let happen here.''
Many factors besides acid rain are involved, researchers note, including drought, insect damage, disease, and ozone at high altitudes.
Despite the Reagan administration's unwillingness so far to undertake specific steps to curb acid rain, the federal government's National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program is producing a lot of data on which eventual action could be based.
The EPA's most comprehensive study of acid rain -- the National Synoptic Water Survey -- is being directed from the agency's major research center in Corvallis, Ore. A task group is in the second phase of a three-part study of US waterways. In 1984 it surveyed and set up monitoring systems for some 2,500 lakes in the Northeast, Southeast, and upper Midwest; 900 lakes in the West will also be identified for monitoring. The task group's second phase, monitoring of streams, got under way in March with a pilot survey in New England. The third phase of the program is continuous monitoring; major assessments are to be produced this year (probably early fall), and in 1987 and '89.
A second task group is studying the effects of acid rain and other pollutants on forests and soil.
EPA sources emphasize there is no ``deadline'' for recommending action on acid rain. Says one EPA scientist: ``We will keep doing the research and reporting the results. Someone else will make the policy decision as to what to do and when to do it.''
Acid-rain bills like HR 1030, while serious in their intent, are seen as a means of pressuring Congress and the administration to rewrite the Clean Air Act with an eye to current conditions.
Complicating the acid-rain situation -- but also presenting an opportunity to address it -- is the need to renew the national Clean Air Act, which expired in 1982 but remains in force pending congressional action. Environmentalists would like to see the timetable for cutting emissions of pollutants speeded up. They also want more controls imposed on specific sources rather than for areas.
One way that many industries and power plants have been able to meet clean-air requirements has been through building taller smokestacks that, in effect, ``export'' their pollution to other areas.
The annual operating cost for the kinds of controls sought on smokestack pollution is estimated at from $4 billion to $7 billion a year (in 1982 dollars). Anthony Cortese, director of the Center for Environmental Study at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., points out that if the cost were borne by the states where most of the pollution now originates, electricity rates ``would rise 10 to 20 percent in a region of the country with severe economic problems.'' The states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio would be most severely affected.
At the recent Quebec City meeting, Paul Guthrie, director of intergovernmental programs for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told participants that some way must be found to ``permit continued use of Midwestern coal'' to avoid ``a series of economic and social dislocations in an area still not recovered from our most recent recessions.''
The Coalition of Northeast Governors has responded to this situation by endorsing a plan for having electricity consumers in parts of the US that benefit from the pollution controls share the cost.