Dialogue, but not much action, ahead on acid-rain issue

It seemed fitting that a light drizzle fell on already sodden Boston as environmental activists staged a decoration ceremony for the "national acid rain Christmas tree" at the Massachusetts State House last week.

The tree, a dead 20-foot spruce taken from a New Hampshire forest, was on its way to Washington, where its sponsors hoped it would compete for attention with the National Christmas Tree lighted by the President.

The dead spruce, bearing such "ornaments" as fish skeletons, is intended "to translate the outrage that is felt in the Northeast about the damage caused by acid rain into pressure on the federal government to do something about it," said David Rapaport, a spokesman for the New England chapter of Greenpeace.

If some of those in national politics remain unresponsive to the acid rain problem, Mr. Rapaport declared bravely, "they may not be back in office" after 1984.

New England and the Northeast in general bear the brunt of the damage done by acid-laden precipitation stemming from fossil-fuel emissions farther west. On nightly newscasts, television meteorologists routinely report the acidity level of local rainfall. One out of every five bodies of water in Massachusetts is being severely damaged by acids, says a new state-sponsored study.

Two weeks ago at a meeting of the Coalition of Northeastern Governors, six of the seven voting members endorsed a proposal for a $2 billion trust fund to help finance the cost of emissions control equipment for utilities and other industries that burn fossil fuels.

In addition, President Reagan and his Democratic challengers are being invited to an acid rain conference next month in Manchester, N.H., sponsored by a coalition of environmental groups led by Friends of the Earth. Walter F. Mondale, Ernest Hollings, Gary Hart, and Alan Cranston already have accepted, and a Canadian delegation led by Environment Minister Charles Caccia is scheduled to attend.

Last month, several members of the New England congressional delegation sponsored another of the many bills in the US House of Representatives that would require lower sulfur-dioxide emissions from Midwest power plants and factories and provide the offending states with federal funds to aid in the reduction.

Administrative action on acid rain, however, is clearly on hold. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief William Ruckelshaus failed to come forward with a comprehensive plan of attack in October as advertised. Internal EPA documents place acid rain no higher than fifth on the list of priorities needing attention.

It apparently doesn't rank high in Congress, either. Some of the most influential members of the House and Senate come from the very states accused of being most responsible for acid rain, like Illinois and Ohio.

In a much-heralded move at its meeting last August, the National Governors' Association (NGA) formed a task force to help Congress develop a "reasoned solution" to acid rain. But the NGA isn't in sync on the issue, either. Its current chairman is Gov. James Thompson (R) of Illinois, and he appointed New Hampshire's John Sununu (R) to head the acid rain panel rather than Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), who first proposed the idea. Mr. Sununu favors a gradual reduction of sulfurous emissions and would encourage utilities to go to the EPA with their own reduction agendas.

At least one environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation of New England, says the way to force action on acid rain is through the courts. Executive director Douglas Foy says the issue "falls through the cracks" since it isn't covered by either the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act -- at least until they are reauthorized and amended.

The foundation promises "the first legal challenge to the growing danger of acid rain" next year. Mr. Foy says there are three technical issues that such a challenge will have to address: transport of pollutants across state lines, damage to property, and quantification of that damage. All three, he says, are provable.

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