Heed the alert on acid rain

Technical and scientific questions that involve pollution control and the environment are almost by definition contentious - in the sense that the imposition of even the most modest new regulations could cost US industries and consumers billions of dollars. Yet when the issue is as stark as that of saving lakes, forests, and fishlife from actual destruction - as it is in the case of acid rain - it seems more reasonable and prudent to tilt on the side of the environment than to come down against new regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency's new two-year draft study on acid rain suggests vividly the need for federal action to curb the adverse environmental pollution now taking place in the Northeastern United States and Canada. Although the EPA disputes the environmentalists' contention that the report offers conclusive proof that US industries cause acid rain - even as the Reagan administration continues to oppose new regulations - the 1,200-page study goes far in establishing a link between emissions from Midwest industries and damage to lakes and fish along the Eastern US and Canada as prevailing winds carry the pollution across the North American continent.

Acid rain is formed in the atmosphere by a mixing of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and water. Significantly, the new study found that sulfur dioxide emissions east of the Mississippi River doubled from 1950 to 1976, with the largest percentage of increase coming from the Midwest. The major culprits for sulfur dioxide emissions during this period, according to the study, were electric utility plants.

Although the Reagan administration is attempting to downplay this report, as it has other studies involving acid rain, the link drawn between acid rain and Midwestern industrial plants and electric utilities is clear enough to warrant new regulatory action as urged not just by environmentalists but the Canadian government.

The US Senate now has legislation before it that would require a 35 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emission levels by 1995. The measure, which pertains to the Eastern United States, was overwhelmingly adopted by an environmental committee and should be passed by both the Senate and House.

How many lakes will be allowed to atrophy because of acid rain before decisive action is taken? The time for study has passed. The issue is not one of imposing unnecessary new costs on utilities or businesses. It is one of taking intelligent measures to manage the nation's most precious resources for the benefit of all.

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