ACID RAIN: A small step forward?

Because over half of the acid that rains down on Sweden orginates elsewhere in Europe, this Scandinavian country is trying to recruit the international environmental movement in the fight against this menace.

The effects of acid rain are not, of course, confined to Sweden and Norway. They are showing up widely in Canada, other parts of Europe, and the United States as well. Thus the European Conference on Acid Rain, held here last month , focused international attention on a universal problem that requires urgent and cooperative action.

Both in American and in Europe species of fish have died out in thousands of lakes, and in many other water bodies the reproduction of fish is threatened. As the process continues, most other aquatic species disappear. Once an ecosystem degenerates, regeneration is very difficult.

The effects on soil have not yet been fully ascertained, but are likely to include reduced soil fertility and reduced productivity of cultivatable plants and forests. This in turn could seriously affect food supply systems because an increase in the acidification of soil increases the mobility of both basic nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous compounds) and toxic metals.

Sulfur emissions can also result in a haze in the air, reducing visibility.

Although economic consequences are not easy to quantify in the case of long-range transport, local emissions have increased the corrosion of buildings and monuments, iron and concrete, paint, and other materials in such cities as Athens, Venice, Cologne, and Krakow. There is also evidence that drinking water supplies in the west coast of Sweden, parts of Poland, and Pennsylvania and New York State have been contaminated by the corrosion of water pipes through acidification. Moreover, acidification of lakes and streams liberates toxic metals into the water, which then become toxic to fish and to humans eating those fish.

Prof. Folke Andersson of the Swedish University of Agriculture reported the startling finding of Prof. Bernhard Ulrich, of the Institute of Soil Science at the University of Gottingen, West Germany, that 30 percent of the spruce forests in northern Germany are suffering from acid rain, which damages spruce needles and distrubs ntural photosynthesis. The resulting organic decay and associated chemical action in turn damages the trees' root systems. If this finding becomes firmly established, German Scientists re likely to join the growing international movement to abate acid rain.

Norway distributed the report of a nine- year research effort to study the effects of acid rain on forests and freshwater fish -- a project Erik Lykke, director-general for international affairs in the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, has called "the world's most comprehensive study of acid rain." This has established that freshwater fish have been wiped out in 13,000 square kilometers of lakes in southern Norway since 1950. An additional lake area of 20,000 square kilometers is dangerously close to toxic levels of acidification.

Goran Persson, deputy director of the Swedish Environmental Protection Board, spoke of Sweden's still unrealized hopes for effective sulfur abatement under the 1979 Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. The ECE convention was signed by 33 member states, including virtually all of Eastern and Western Europe and Canada and the US. But only five countries have ratified the agreement to date, and only one inconclusive meeting has thus far been held by the ECE secretariat, whose task it is to implement the convention's provisions.

An international conference cannot of itself solve the complex acid rain problem. However, the participants have issued a strategy paper which they hope will both guide international action and spur it on.

One alternative to fossil fuels is nuclear power. In March of last year a national referendum was held in Sweden over the government's plans to build six nuclear power plants. By a large majority the Swedish electorate approved those plans.

Indeed, many air pollution officials, both in Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe, favor expanded nuclear power as a means of reducing acid rain. More nuclear power means less reliance on sulfur-containing oil and coal to produce electricity. Conference participants took special note of this pro-nuclear opinion by declaring that "the reform of our energy policies should take into account the envirounmental consequences of all possible sources of energy. Thus we do not regard nuclear energy as an acceptable alternative to fossil fuels."

The strategy paper also calls on governments and concerned citizens to heed the following recommendations:

* Energy conservation must be the first priority for all nations, local governments, industry, and individuals.

* National energy policies should be framed with specific regard to the occurrence of transboundary air pollution.

* Nations and individuals should increase their efforts to develop and use renewable energy resources.

* Concerned citizens should work with public officials and labor representatives to develop and expand regional and local alternative energy production and delivery systems, with the aim of lowering total energy consumption.

* Transboundary sulfur and nitrogen oxides pollution should be greatly reduced and prevented through such means as the use of fuels of low sulfur content, desulfurized fuels, and the best available technologies to control emissions. The control of hydrocarbon emissions may present a cost-effective means of reducing the long-range trnsport of sulfates and nitrates because of their significant role in the chemistry of long-range transport.

* Strict limits to emissions should be established for each country.

* Such measures as coal washing, flue-gas desulfurization through wet and dry scrubbing processes, and combustion methods based on low and nonwaste technologies should be widely applied. There should be strengthened efforts to develop and apply cost-effective technologies to remove the threat of acid deposition. Engineering innovation in this sphere should be encouraged and information on new technologies should be exchanged by the signatories to the ECE Convention.

* Countries affected by acid rain deposition should take full advantage of the 1979 ECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution to require consultation with emitting countries (under Article 5 and 8) on proposed changes in national polices and industrial development which are likely to increase long-range transboundary air pollution. Consultation should include, but not be limited to, participation in the planning and other administrative proceedings of the emitting states.

* The Scandinavian findings on acid deposition should be immediately translated into sulfur reduction policies within the Nordic area, as an example to the rest of Europe.

* Strenuous efforts should be made to recruit all environmental organizations , other citizen groups, universities, technological instituions, industrial management, and representatives of labor in the campaign to abate sulfur pollution and acid rain without loss of employment and its benefits.

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