The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Acid Rain
JIM LEHRER: There is a new environmental fear alive in the land, the fear of something called `acid rain.` Reports of its presence and its danger come from everywhere.
[Film segments from various parts of the country.]
REPORTER FROM MASSACHUSETTS: New England receives more of the acid rain than any other part of the nation.
REPORTER FROM PENNSYLVANIA: The center of the acid rain storm is right here in Pennsylvania.
REPORTER FROM COLORADO: Acid rain has been discovered near the Continental Divide.
REPORTER FROM MAINE: We have it here in Maine, probably worse.
REPORTER FROM NEW YORK: Prevailing winds carry acid particles into the higher altitudes of the northeast.
REPORTER FROM CALIFORNIA: The highest concentrations of acid rain fall on Berkeley and San Jose.
REPORTER FROM WISCONSIN: This area of northern Wisconsin may be the most acid sensitive region in the midwest.
LEHRER: Good evening. The alarm is ringing loud and clear on acid rain. Environmentalists, joined by the federal government and some state governments, pushed the button of alarm, and now seldom a day goes by without a news story from somewhere about it. Stories of lakes turning up dead. Fish populations decreasing. Of conflicts between northeastern states and midwestern states. Between government and industry. Between the United States and Canada. Between and among all kinds of people, with all kinds of interests. Even the recent eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in the state of Washington had its acid rain angle. Scientists expressed the fear that its black ashey cloud would increase the acidity of the rain across the country. But the main dispute over acid rain is a man made one. One side claims that sulphur dioxide emissions from coal burning power and industrial plants are the culprits. On the other side is industry, particularly the coal industry, which says there`s no evidence to support that thesis. While that argument simmers, northeastern states claim coal burning in the midwest is turning its rain acidic. Canada makes the same general claim about U.S. industry, and so on. Wednesday, the Senate Energy Committee opens a full-dress hearing on the acid rain phenomenon. Tonight, we take a much more modest stab at it ourselves. Robert MacNeil is off. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, there may be debate over acid rain as villain, but there is no question that acid buildup can lead to serious problems, particularly in lakes. In some cases, high levels of acidity prevent fish eggs from hatching. Further, as acid levels increase, certain mosses, fungi, and algae which thrive on acid begin to choke out nearly all other aquatic plants as well as plankton, the base of the food chain. Tadpoles, shrimp, frogs, snails and other mature fish then begin to die from lack of food, gill damage, or poison. Toxic metals such as mercury from the lake bottom and shore may be leached into the water. Ironically, the biggest danger sign is a lake that takes on an almost jewel-like blue clarity. You can see to the bottom clearly because there is no life disturbing the view. Jim?
LEHRER: You can see those signs in lakes all over the country, according to reports we have from various public television stations. Here`s a segment of one such report done by station WHA, Madison, Wisconsin. The reporter is Bob Lovely. [on videotape]
NARRATOR: Keep an eye on this Wisconsin lake. Trout Lake, along with a lot of others in this part of the state, may soon show the telltale signs that signal an ominous change in the delicate balance of its water chemistry. Ironically, that change comes from the same natural process that fills the lake and feeds the fish. The rain and snow that has fallen on the lake and its watershed for millions c." years now constitutes a threat. Judy Use, Larry Heinis, and Craig Sandberg work for the Environmental Protection Agency in Duluth, Minnesota. They are three of hundreds of scientists who are monitoring the effects of one of today`s most serious global environmental concerns -- acid precipitation. This area of northern Wisconsin may be the most acid-sensitive region in the midwest. In March, these researchers took snow samples from here into the Duluth Research Lab to analyze the acid level. The steady, alarming increase of this acid level in rain and snow has been going on for 20 years and covers all of the eastern half of the United States and Canada. It`s a byproduct of air pollution and forms when sulphur and nitrogen oxide react chemically with water vapor. Trucks and cars are big contributors to the stuff that acid rain is made of, but most of the pollution comes from smokestacks of industrial coal-fired boilers. To keep from dumping pollution on the ground where air quality is monitored, the stacks are built taller and taller. The pollutants are carried by wind far from their source. This Wisconsin paper mill disperses about 12,000 tons of nitrogen and sulphur a year. The lakes and streams of northern Wisconsin are vulnerable and potential victims. The soft waters and unique bedrock geology make them susceptible. According to the EPA, the principal sources of sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions are coal-fueled electrical generating plants, and sulphur-rich ore smelter complexes. Those sulphur emissions will only skyrocket as our energy crisis intensifies, and our dependence on coal increases. The problem is complicated by the incredible distances traveled by pollutants, sometimes hundreds and even thousands of miles from their source. That means that air quality standards are difficult to enforce. Westerly winds can easily carry pollutants from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to some of the most sensitive areas of northern Wisconsin and Michigan. In short, pollution doesn`t recognize state or national boundaries. Some regions are less susceptible to the effects of acid rain because of the geology of their bedrock. Lakes situated in areas with limestone, such as Lake Winnebago, can accommodate more acids than other areas because of a natural neutralizing ability of limestone. The limestone contains calcium carbonate, which acts to buffer the acid like Alka-Seltzer. As acid rain falls on the watershed of Lake Winnebago, the limestone bedrock neutralizes acidity in the water, making it safe for fish by the time the water reaches the lake. But lakes in areas With bedrock of granite or basalt have little ability to buffer acid rain. Hundreds of lakes in northern Wisconsin lie in regions with this type of bedrock and are consequently highly susceptible to any increased acidity. What little neutralizing capacity these lakes have can be lost if enough acid falls on their watershed. Once this threshold is reached, small amounts of additional acid could then cause large changes to occur practically overnight, rendering them unable to support diverse aquatic life. Lakes collecting acid snow all winter receive a big shot of acid during the spring thaw when the snow melts. One of the most direct consequences of acid rain is on fish. [University of Wisconsin] limnologist Dr. John Magnuson--
Dr. JOHN MAGNUSON: What happens is that people would begin to notice that all of a sudden the fish in this lake would keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and they wouldn`t find any of the small ones. And later they discover that what was going on is that there was no successful reproduction. Now, other things that happen: If you increase the acidity of the water, it`s very difficult for fish to get the oxygen out of water that they need to respire. It`s very difficult for the blood to take the oxygen out of the water if there`s a high acid level in the water, so that`s another kind of an effect it has. If you look at our important game fishes in this state and ask that if they occurred in a susceptible lake and if these kind of changes begin to occur in Wisconsin, which ones would be affected most, which ones not, some of the fish which are very tolerant, and that`s perhaps good news, are the yellow perch. Another one that`s very tolerant is the brook trout. Some of those that are very intolerant are the walleye, minnows, some of the basses.
NARRATOR: The disastrous effects of acid rain are multiplied by Us ability to cause the release of toxic heavy metals otherwise bound to the soil of a lake`s watershed. Metals such as mercury, copper, lead, and aluminum, can be dissolved out, or leached, from the soil by acid precipitation. And, when mercury accumulates in fish, it becomes unsafe for human consumption. Clearly, acid precipitation poses serious problems for Wisconsin, but what can be done to stop it? Some research is being done in the breeding of acid-resistant fish. But this treats the symptom, not the cause, and may lead to other complications. At the source of the problem, stricter clean air laws are beginning to force polluters to burn a low-sulphur grade of fuel. Emissions from the Columbia Generating Station are relatively clean because the plant bums only low-sulphur coal from the west. This results in a decrease in sulphur pollutants and less chance of acid rain. But coal from Wyoming and Montana is heavily taxed and expensive to transport. New technology can also control air pollution at its source. Installation of scrubbers has been effective in reducing sulphur emissions, but the cost of these units is high. The environmental costs and dangers are high too, dangers made clear by the lakes of Scandinavia and northern New York, lakes stilled by the relentless falling of acid rain.
HUNTER-GAULT: Among those who`ve been sounding the acid rain alarm is the administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He is Douglas Costle. Mr. Costle, what has brought you to your present state of alarm?
DOUGLAS COSTLE: I think the single most important thing that happened this year was that scientists from all around the world, but in particular U.S. scientists who have been studying this phenomenon, came to me and they said, in effect, `there`s a lot we still do not know about acid rain, but we know enough now, particularly with respect to its effects on lakes and aquatic systems, to know that we should not be making the problem worse, but instead should begin to take remedial measures to reduce the amount of total sulphur and nitrogen oxide in the air, and begin to take the pressure off of these sensitive lakes.`
HUNTER-GAULT: What specific evidence did they bring to you that the problem is being caused by sulphur from coal, that is causing these and other problems?
COSTLE: Well, the principal data they brought to us was the fact that sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides were the culprit. Then, we went back to look at the accumulated data over 10 years of where most of those sulphur and nitrogen emissions are coming from, and in terms of the total loading that`s being put into the atmosphere, power plants burning either oil or coal, are in fact the major single contributors in this country today, although by no means the only ones.
HUNTER-GAULT: I mentioned the possible effects, and so did you, on plant life and fish. Is there any danger in this to people?
COSTLE: I would suspect that the-- at least, given what we`ve been told to date by scientists, the danger to the extent it exists is several steps removed from the actual precipitation itself. That is, it can, in affecting the ecology of the lakes and in affecting the-- what kinds of metals or other materials may leach into the water, and that water in turn may find itself into a public water supply untreated, and in that case, there may be human ingestion of toxic metals. But it`s a chain that has several steps in it, so it`s very hard right now, given existing levels, to speculate about that, except that we are concerned and we want to understand that better.
HUNTER-GAULT: You heard that sort of acid rain hit list unfold at the beginning of our program. How widespread is this problem, in your estimation?
COSTLE: It`s worldwide. And I think one of the key things in that film footage that you had, was that the vulnerability of areas to acid precipitation varies because of geology, or of soils composition. So that some areas are buffered better, that is, can have a much higher tolerance for acid deposition than other areas. But we`ve got worldwide areas that are sensitive to it, and a lot of areas in this country.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what kind of solutions is your agency, the EPA, coming with to handle this problem?
COSTLE: The only solution-- the only practical solution is to reduce the total loadings of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides. Interestingly enough, new power plants are being built today so clean, even where they`re coal burning, that they`re not going to contribute significantly to making the problem worse. But we do have a lot of older plants that are less well controlled, or not controlled at all because they`re grandfathered under existing law. And that`s where the bulk of the emissions are coming from today. So, it will mean going back and retrofitting those plants with some form of technology that will reduce the total loadings that they are currently contributing.
HUNTER-GAULT: Just two quick definitions. You say `grandfathered` and `retrofitting`. Now, can you just explain the definition within the context of your answer?
COSTLE: Well, the Clean Air Act gives the federal government authority to set specific technology standards on new power plants, so that we`re able to be very, very strict about what they`re allowed to emit. And with respect to a lot of the older plants, we have a less direct ability to do that. We have to deal with-- on the basis of ambiant standards, which are then translated by state government into controls on existing power plants. And frankly, we`ve not had the greatest success in the world in this country over the last 10 years in achieving significant reductions from these older plants.
HUNTER-GAULT: And that`s where you identify as the major problem right now?
COSTLE: I think that`s exactly right.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Many do claim that coal is the major villain in this acid rain story, and it`s a claim the coal industry says is unprovable and unfair. William Poundstone is executive vice president of Consolidated Coal, one of the nation`s largest coal companies. He`s also active in the industry`s trade group, the National Coal Association, and heads the NCA`s research effort. Mr. Poundstone, what do you think of Mr. Costle`s position on acid rain?
WILLIAM POUNDSTONE: Well, there are a number of issues that Mr. Costle has stated and there`s a number of issues shown in the film that are worthy of discussion. I`m sure we don`t have time to handle them all. I would say that I quite agree that as a nation we must take the actions that are needed to protect the health and protect the overall welfare of the country. There`s no issue there. There is no issue that the rainfall is acid. But we go beyond that point, and we start to diverge.
LEHRER: In other words, you will concede that there is such a thing as acid rain?
POUNDSTONE: Yes, sir. The rain--
LEHRER: And it`s a damaging-- it has serious repercussions when it hits the ground?
POUNDSTONE: I have not said that. I have said the rain is acid. But unfortunately the popular conception of the problem is, as amply depicted by the television program, does not completely coincide with what I find from my own literature search, from my own talk to the scientific people in this country, England, Norway, to our own EPRI people.
LEHRER: All right, what have you found?
POUNDSTONE: All right. There are a number of anomalies that are not explained by this thesis, such as the fact that since 1965 in Europe, emissions of sulphur dioxide have gone up 35 percent. They have very large levels of sulphur emission, I think far in excess of this country, by a factor of about three to one. And yet, since 65, the rainfall in Sweden which is downwind and has been identified as the source of their-- the ultimate source of their rainfall, has shown a level with, [if] anything, a slightly improved trend in acidity. So, the question I ask is, why can sulphur dioxide go up there without increases? Secondly, if I accept the data that I think is at the heart of this general conception, that being principally the work of Dr. Likens and Cogbili and others, who have presented three iso pH maps from different periods of time which show an increasing area of acidity, I notice--
LEHRER: That`s how acidity is measured--
POUNDSTONE: --is measured, by pH.
LEHRER: --formulas using pHs, which we`re not gonna go into, Okay?
POUNDSTONE: I notice that the lower Mississippi Valley, as an example, is over ten times more acid now than it was in the early period. In other words, it has gone from a very neutral category up to a pH in the high 4 category. And I have studied the predominant wind maps which are supplied by EPA in their data book, and observed that there are no coal-fired power plants that can explain that buildup in acidity. Also, I notice that sampling points or--
LEHRER: Excuse me, let me interrupt you there one minute. Meaning there are no, in terms of wind patterns--
POUNDSTONE: The predominant winds are off the Gulf of Mexico, and there are neither coal-fired plants in the area locally nor are there any coal-fired plants out in the Gulf to explain it.
LEHRER: So your position is that there may be more acid in those bodies of water, but it didn`t get there as a result of coal-fired power plants?
POUNDSTONE: I was speaking of acid precipitation. We haven`t yet come to the lakes. And I would also notice that studies made in Colorado, which are surprisingly acid, where the predominant winds come in from the northwest over totally uninhabited and over areas where no power plants are in existence. EPRI tells me that we`re finding high levels of acidity in Samoa, the last place in the world you would suspect to find it. And so the first thing I say, that plus an examination of the only data we have going back in time, that`s been taken in the same place by the same methods, we find that that data shows a level trend in acidity far different than what is popularly conceived. I don`t know whether it`s more acid or not, but I say, even that issue is in question. But more importantly is the issue of whether further control of SO2, which is a specific pollutant--
LEHRER: That sulphur dioxide.
POUNDSTONE: --and one dear to the coal industry`s heart, will in fact make any reduction in the acidity of rainfall.
LEHRER: You say no?
POUNDSTONE: And there`s a great deal of argument and evidence that must be heard on this issue. The English Electricity Board, the EPRI people as well---
LEHRER: Who are the EPRI people?
POUNDSTONE: That is the research arm of the Electric Power Research Institute.
LEHRER: I see. All right.
POUNDSTONE: They have some $22 million a year in research activity, and I think in these areas are doing more than anyone.
LEHRER: Look, we wanna get you and Mr. Costle to discuss these differences, but finally, let me ask you this. Do you feel that Mr. Costle and the EPA are just simply alarming people unnecessarily up to now, based on your reading of the evidence? In a word.
POUNDSTONE: I don`t know that I would accuse Mr. Costle and the EPA. I think there is a building concern for acid rain. I don`t know who causes it or what`s behind it, but in my mind, the issue is primarily a welfare issue, and not a health issue. And while I can be sympathetic--
LEHRER: Why is it a welfare issue?
POUNDSTONE: A welfare issue in the sense that I don`t believe that -- Mr. Costle did not directly answer the question -- but I have not heard any of the scientific community make a serious charge that the acidity was resulting in damage to human health at this point in time.
LEHRER: I see. I see. All right. Thank you.
POUNDSTONE: Therefore it`s a welfare issue.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Costle, what about Mr. Poundstone`s unexplained anomalies in Samoa and Europe and the lower Mississippi, that their acidity has not increased although emissions are up in all of those places?
COSTLE: I think part of what he was saying "was that they had increased, but he couldn`t find any coal-fired power plants that might be contributing to that.
HUNTER-GAULT: I`m sorry, could you just repeat what you said?
COSTLE: I said, I think his point was that acidity levels are increasing, but that he was not aware of any coal-fired power plants that would be contributing to that, given the prevailing wind patterns. And as I noted earlier, it isn`t just coal-fired power plants. I would suspect along the Gulf Coast it`s the tremendous refinery development along that whole area for processing oil. And there are substantial quantities of sulphur emissions, and also nitrogen oxide emissions, from those kinds of operations.
HUNTER-GAULT: But I think basically--
COSTLE: There`s absolutely no question that in the northeastern part of the United States where we`ve done most of our studies, and also in the Minnesota-Wisconsin area, that the principal upwind sources are in fact coal-fired and some very large oil-fired plants.
HUNTER-GAULT: And that`s sufficient evidence for you?
COSTLE: Well, it has been to date. And obviously we will look at any evidence that is presented.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Poundstone, what do you say to that?
POUNDSTONE: Well, again, I come back-- In the late `40s the total coal production in this country was around the 600 million ton class. In 1972, which are the latest figures I think on your sulphur data, we were modestly above that, a little over-- around 700 million. But in the intervening period, a good bit of coal production in the west, which has very low sulphur, has come in. While there is not data available to determine it, it`s apparent that there`s little, if any more, sulphur from coal being placed into the atmosphere now than was the case in the late 1940s. Yet again the popular conception says, according to CEQ, we`ve become 5,000 times more acid in this period. That coal-fired power plants are primarily responsible, and I suspect that our whole control strategy will hinge primarily on the coal industry.
HUNTER-GAULT: What about that point, Mr. Costle, that Mr. Poundstone made a little bit earlier, that further controls won`t make any significant reductions and that you`re just wasting time and money?
COSTLE: No, I very much disagree with that. As I said earlier, we are now controlling new coal-fired power plants and major coal-burning sources, for that matter, very tightly. They`re not the problem. They`re not going to add significantly. But we`ve got a problem right now that I think has gradually built up. It isn`t something that just suddenly overwhelmed us. As the scientists said, this one snuck up on us. And the accumulation of that acid deposition, it takes time for it to have this effect on lakes. But we now have dead lakes. There`s about 200 of them up in the Adirondacks alone. The problem, I think, is associated with the existing sources, major sources of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxide. They happen to be, at least in the middle west, and therefore affecting both Canada and the northeastern part of the United States, in that instance they tend to be coal-fired. It is a problem, however, with a solution. That is, it is possible to get reductions in emissions from those older plants, and there is newer technology coming along that has even more promise in terms of being very low cost technology. So I think it`s a problem that can be solved, that we can get emissions out of those older plants, and at the same time, continue to build new power plants, coal-fired, that are in fact very clean. Last year, we were able to, within environmental standards, approve 85 new power plants. And they will not--they`re not the cause of acid rain. So, I don`t think in the long haul we need to rule out coal. I think we can burn coal. The only question in my mind is whether we`re prepared to do it with adequate environmental controls and willing to go back after these older sources and get better controls on those and better emissions reductions.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what about Mr. Poundstone`s point that you just simply have not presented enough evidence to have them involved in doing that?
COSTLE: Well, that`s now being reviewed by the Congress. I`ve got to tell you that the evidence I`ve seen is pretty persuasive. And we`re not arguing that coal-fired power plants are the only problem. But there is no question that in significant parts of the country that are ecologically the most sensitive, they are the problem.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Costle?
LEHRER: Mr. Poundstone.
HUNTER-GAULT: Sorry-- Mr. Poundstone.
POUNDSTONE: Don`t you think that unless we can show that the problem is getting worse, and that in light of the fact that I agree with you, we have on the new plant standards, taken the actions that will prevent a long range buildup, don`t you think that it is necessary for us to be fully confident that any corrective action we take will result in significant improvement?
HUNTER-GAULT: In a word, Mr. Costle?
COSTLE: In a word, the only significant action we can take is to reduce existing emissions, and that means--
LEHRER: We have to--
HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you.
COSTLE: --going back to these older plants.
LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Thank you. We`ll see you tomorrow night. I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Acid Rain
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- NewsHour Productions
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- National Records and Archives Administration (Washington, District of Columbia)
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- Episode Description
- The main topic of this episode is Acid Rain. The guests are Douglas Costle, William Poundstone. Byline: Jim Lehrer, Charlayne Hunter-Gault
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- Politics and Government
- Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode)
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Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
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Identifier: 96883 (NARA catalog identifier)
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Acid Rain,” 1980-05-26, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 18, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-pk06w9754b.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Acid Rain.” 1980-05-26. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 18, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-pk06w9754b>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Acid Rain. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-pk06w9754b