New England states may sue over acid rain

The New England governors and the premiers of five eastern Canadian provinces have determined to take strong action to combat acid rain inside - and outside - their regions.

In the absence of a national policy to control acid rain in the United States , the New England governors are considering battling Midwest polluters in court. At the annual conference of the New England Governors and the Eastern Canadian Premiers here Monday, Gov. Richard A. Snelling (R) of Vermont said, ''In the absence of a federal law, we can seek damages in court.''

The chiefs of state say forests and lakes in the Northeast are being choked by acid rain. They claim that air pollution, produced primarily by the smokestack industries of the Midwest, is being deposited across the Northeast when it rains.

The resolution passed by the governors asks the attorneys general in the six New England states to consider the feasibility of bringing a class-action suit against large utilities and manufacturers in the Midwest. If the attorneys general agree a suit is feasible, Governor Snelling says, ''our suit would name each and every utility and industry from which sulfur dioxide emissions come.''

Snelling says a lawsuit might also pressure legislators in the Midwest into seeking a national policy on acid rain. ''One way or another,'' he says, ''we're going to make them stop (polluting).

''Our view is that acid rain is not just not nice, it is damaging,'' he says. Acid rain has caused billions of dollars damage to forests, lakes, and farm land in 31 states during the past decade, he adds.

The governors also agreed acid deposition originating within New England should not increase. They put a cap on the sulpher dioxide emissions from the states' major utilities and industries.

Charles Fausold, an environmental specialist for the New England Governors Conference Inc., says three states - Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island - already meet the new limit. The other states will be required to place restrictions on new sources as they develop.

Because of this, Mr. Fausold says, the resolution is ''80 percent symbolic.'' But ''it prevents the Midwestern states from saying, 'You're not doing anything about acid rain yourselves.' ''

Beyond the New England cap, Massachusetts and Quebec proposed a resolution to give ''first priority'' to developing a short-term plan for reducing sulfur dioxide emissions in the Northeast. A committee will be established to determine how this should best be done.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) of Massachusetts says these efforts are the result of the ''degree of frustration we feel at the failure of our own country to move on a national acid-rain policy.

''While our respective governments are having difficulties, we must maintain leadership,'' he says.

Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy (D) of Rhode Island says, ''We are united on an issue on which our national governments have been unable to agree.''

Allen A. Gotlieb, Canada's ambassador to the United States, notes, ''Acid rain is a top irritant in the Canada-US relations today. This is out of character for the two countries, since we have a long history of cooperation on transboundary environmental issues.

''Canada has been deeply disappointed that the (Reagan) administration has chosen not to consider a control program in the forseeable future,'' he adds.

Andrew Card, a special assistant to President Reagan who spoke at the conference, said although the White House ''knows that acid rain is a major concern, the problem itself is not yet fully understood.

''This administration is more committed to understanding the problem than any other (administration) in history and will work to find programs that will succeed,'' he says. In the meantime, he asked governors to work with ''your colleagues (in other states) to develop a national consensus.''

But Gov. Joseph E. Brennan (D) of Maine said, ''We have talked about acid rain for years. It is getting embarrassing for me to go back to Maine without any evidence of tangible progress.''

The time to act is now, he says. ''There is a screaming need for leadership at the national level. We can't afford to wait for a states' consensus.''

The governors and premiers met in the great hall of one of Newport's ''summer cottages'' - a 50-room mansion modeled after the chateaux of France's Loire Valley. The building now houses the administration of Salve Regina College.

Several other concerns of the two regions were discussed during the two-day meeting, including tourism, trade, agriculture, and transferring energy (natural gas, hydroelectricity, and oil) from Canada to New England.

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