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Acid Rain

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Acid Rain

Jacob Capps

    Acid Rain is not a subject that you hear much about these days.  But in the 1980’s, Acid Rain was a big deal.  Acid rain is what happens when acid gases are produced from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil, emitted from factories and cars and homes.  Most of the acid gases are blown into the atmosphere and then mix in with the clouds.  The rain, or snow or sleet or even fog, then becomes more acidic and that is where the problems occur.   The elevated acid levels in the precipitation ends up making lakes and streams uninhabitable for fish and contributes to accelerated deterioration of buildings, monuments, plumbing   Acid rain also causes a multitude of health problems.  In areas that have a large concentration of these airborne industrial emissions, there is an increase in chest colds, asthma, allergies, and coughs in children and other vulnerable populations.  Acid from rain can be deposited into our soil and make it impossible for plant life to receive the nutrients that they need from the soil. So what ever happened to this environmental hazard?  Does it still exist?  If it isn’t a problem any more, what was done to fix it?  If it is still a problem, what should be done and where does acid rain rank when it comes to environmental issues?  What effect did acid rain have on our ecology and what effect is it still having?  This report will cover these questions and show what can happen when government does the right thing.

    In 1980, acid rain was a serious environmental concern. Resulting largely from the smokestack emissions of coal-fired power plants, there was an extreme increase of acidity in rainfall, nearly a quarter of the lakes and streams in the Adirondack Mountains had become uninhabitable by fish.   The other problem with acid rain, it has no boundaries.  Our emissions can negatively affect our neighbors to the east of us.  Due to the weather patterns, California’s emissions can make a stream in Maryland too toxic for fish to live in. In the same way, New York can produce toxic emissions that cause lakes and streams in Spain or France to become lethal for any form of life.  Choices made in America could affect countries and continents to our East, as well as countries to our west could affect our quality of life in America.  (see graphic labeled “A”)   Ten years before the United States took steps to solve the acid rain problem, Canada began making efforts to understand and fix the acid rain issue.  Some studies concluded that acid rain had a direct impact on vulnerable species, while other studies argued that the acid rain was not the reason for the struggling species.  Some of these debates are still unresolved.  America did not heed Canada’s caution regarding acid rain until land areas were showing an increased level of acid and proving that crops could not grow in the elevated acidic conditions.  When America’s land looked like it was at risk, Canada and America began to work together.  U.S.-Canadian relations have overcome some of the initial strain regarding the issue of acid rain. Since 1990, there have been several cooperative environmental programs involving both the United States and Canada.  The urgency of the problem prompted amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 and the creation of the world’s first “pollution market,” a cap-and-trade program in which power companies were required to buy permits to emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain. The result: Today, acid rain has all but disappeared from news headlines.  Acid rain is an unusual environmental problem, in that it has a viable solution.  The Clean Air Act in 1990 made a huge impact on the amount of fossil fuel emissions that were produced in the United States.  In addition to putting a limit on how much sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are allowed, a process called “coal scrubbing” has been developed.  The process allows for sulfur to be removed from within the coal.  However, it is an expensive process.  

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  Nearly twenty-five years later, environmentalists can show that most of the lakes and streams that were so heavily affected have recovered.  Some streams, seemingly have not.  Some data that comes from the Long Term Monitoring project, which is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection, shows that there is an alarming lack of recovery in the central Appalachians. Many streams in western Virginia show little or no sign of improvement, likely because acidifying compounds stored in the soil are continuing to leach into the water.  The ecologists that study the long-term effects agree that the soils in regions that were never exposed or part of the ice-age, tend to hold on to the acid compounds longer.  That would explain why the streams are still showing elevated acid levels as the leaching of acid into the water ways continues, slowly and steadily.

     It would appear that by working together to help bring acid rain under control, the world can breathe a little easier.   Scientific debate about sources of acid in our rain continues.  Whether it is from natural, human, or industrial sources, the studies all seem to prove that with governments intervening with new policies, our environment is a little safer.  Why does it matter if the policies that the government implemented can be credited for the lower acid levels in our waters and land?  It matters because many people have little or no faith in new government policies.  Take global warming for instance.  It made a lot of headlines for a very long time.  It is not in the news as much as it used to be, but there are still many people who have devoted their life and career to spreading the importance of stopping global warming.  For as many people that are concerned about this environmental issue, there are that many more that say it does not exist!  How can something that has such a huge impact and is being blamed for so much loss and destruction, not even exist?  If we are to look at history, we can see that the environmentalists that study our environments are very good at predicting future outcomes, based on scientific data.  Science isn’t always right, but if we are going to be responsible humans, we need to look at our behaviors and the results of our behaviors in order to preserve our world and our resources.  

     In Genesis, we read that God created everything, including us.  He pronounced it VERY good, (Genesis 1:31 – “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning--the sixth day.”)  We were given a beautiful garden with all we could ever need.  Sinful behavior brought a terrible result and humankind was evicted from the garden of Eden.  However, God in his mercy and kindness, gave us every good thing that we could ever possible need while we are here on earth.  From the beginning of recorded history, man has been able to sustain himself from every good thing here on earth.  When man became greedy and gave in to his desire to have more than his daily share, then the earth and all the good things on it, began to diminish.  From as far back to the 1930’s, Dust storms were the result of drought and land that had been overused. Drought first hit the country in1930. By 1934, it had turned the Great Plains into a desert that came to be known as the Dust Bowl. It seems our environment has been in shaky hands for many centuries since then.  In 1947 Los Angeles had such poor air quality that they had to develop the first air pollution agency in the United States.  The next year, a Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed.  In 1955, the country needed a National Air Pollution Control Act.  Four years later, California passed a Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board and created testing for automobile emissions and set standards for cleaner air. In 1963 the first national Clean Air Act was drawn up and has been amended 9 times.  In 1965 we found ourselves in a Solid Waste Disposal problem and needed to pass laws about solid waste.  In the 1970’s, we needed to pass laws that set higher safety standards for working people.  The OSHA and NIOSHA Acts were passed to protect workers.  Also in the 1970’s a  Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act and a Federal Water Pollution Control Amendment was passed.  Don’t forget the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) (amended by Food Quality Protection Act of 1996).  1972 – Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972.  Then the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, The Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA).  This list goes on and on.  It’s easy to see how we have gone from over farming dry land and creating a dust bowl to Ozone Depletion, Nuclear Waste Problems to Acid Rain and now Global Warming.

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