Acid rain and the public

If Americans really want the federal government to begin a program to curb acid rain, they will have to demand action. For a variety of reasons the politically touchy issue has become bogged down within the Reagan administration , and Congress has not exhibited the courage to deal with it. It now appears that both Republicans and Democrats have decided to do nothing unless public pressure makes it politically advantageous to propose action prior to next year's primaries or general election.

Questions have been raised about the proposal to curb acid rain advocated within the Reagan administration by William Ruckelshaus, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to reports, he favored a plan that was politically weak since it simultaneously was opposed by environmentalists (too limited), Midwestern politicians (the Midwest would have paid most of the cost), and the administration's Office of Management and Budget (too expensive).

Further, it is reported that in a September Cabinet-level meeting Mr. Ruckelshaus cited primarily a need to reverse lake pollution in the Northeast as justification for adopting a sulfate-control program to diminish acid rain. However, others who also support acid-rain control believe a broadly reasoned program might have gained more support within the administration, as another effect of acid rain is felt in the Midwest as well as in the Northeast: damage to bridges, monuments, and buildings of all types.

Additionally, one recent study indicates soybean crops, a major agricultural product of the Midwest, may be substantially harmed by acid rain. And there is the highly controversial question among scientists of whether they judge that the pollution, which acid rain carries, comprises a health hazard.

A proposal with a more broadly based justification, incorporating some of these points, might have had a better chance of acceptance.

In deciding which proposal to support, Mr. Ruckelshaus may have been trying to gain acceptance of the best plan he could get. Or, failing such support, endeavoring to keep the issue alive and thereby apply pressure on the White House to support some proposal before long.

For months this issue has been sectionally divisive, with the Northeast wanting controls and the Middle West, where much of the pollution is thought to emanate, not wanting to get stuck with the cost. There are some signs of shift here, however, with evidence of the beginning of public support in parts of the Midwest for acid-rain controls.

When Mr. Ruckelshaus became EPA administrator last May, acid rain was one of four environmental areas which President Reagan labeled as of ''immediate concern.'' It still is.

Both parties should set politics aside and draw up a plan to institute reasonable controls with shared costs. And the public should make its voice heard.

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