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Environmental Challenges for the '80; Whats' been accomplished and what's to come

Clean air, clean water, and unspoiled land remain high priorities for countless Americans, according to national polls, but the path to achieving those goals will be complex and costly.

"Environmental problems of the 1980s," says Allen V. Kneese, "are much more subtle than those of the 1970s," stretching in some cases across national frontiers and demanding better understading of the "large natural systems" of the world.

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As a case in point he cites acid rain, an "ominous new threat" that already is turning some lakes in the US, Canada, and Europe into dead bodies of water where fish and plant life cannot survive.

Sulfure and nitrogen oxides, belched from utility and factory smokestacks, mix with water in the atmosphere and fall back to earth in the form of acid rain. It is "measured in some places with an acidity something like vinegar," says Mr. Kneese, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

Since lake water doesn't "turn over very much, gradually the various forms of life die out" as the result of over-acidity.

Ironically, part of the problem springs from success achieved earlier in controlling low-level concentrations of pollutants under the Clean Air Act of 1970, amended in 1977.

Measurement of pollutants under the act pertains to ground level. So, says Mr. Kneese, one way to lower ground-level air pollution "was to put extremely high stacks on power plants.

"It's hard to imagine," he adds, "a better device for propelling materials into the atmosphere than a hot furnace and rusing gases of a tall stack."

"Propelling" is the operative word, for some industrial communities -- in the process of cleaning up their own air -- simply transfered their pollution to people living hundreds, in some cases thousands, of miles away.

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Swedes, said Mr. Kneese, suffer from acid rain generated in Amsterdam, Holland, while the Midwestern region of the US, according to some evidence, experiences damaging rainfall from pollution generated in Southwestern states.

Antipollution efforts in the 1970s, experts agree, centered on "point sources of pollution" -- in the case of water, pipes from which flowed sewage or industrial wastes.

"We built a lot of sewage treatment plants," said Mr. Kneese, "and industry put in [antipollution] facilities. But the main problems in the '80s may come from nonpoint sources of pollution -- runoff from the general countryside, from the cities, containing sediments, pesticides, and organic materials."

Such problems, he stressed, cannot be solved by investing more money in conventional antipollution equipment. "Even with high levels of control at point sources [of pollution] on waterways, they probably won't get much better, simply because so many sources of pollution are not confined in that way."

New approaches to the use of land -- a topic only now coming into public awareness -- will be required, as well as decreasing realiance on fossil fuels.

Yet President Carter, in his energy address to the nation July 15, 1979, urged, among other things, the creation of a vast synthetic fuels industry, plus increased burning of coal.

Environmentalist across the land stressed the enormous damage to land, air, and water that would be caused by known technologies for extracting oil and gas from coal and oil from shale, as well as from the additional burning of coal in utility and industrial boilers.

Some types of damage can be foreseen, according to Mr. Kneese, for the various processes of creating synthetic fuels emit most of the pollutants that now come from large power plants.

Less know are the long-term effects of extracting oil and gas from coal and shale. "Perhaps the most promising technology for using shale oil reserves," says Mr. Kneese, "is in situm technology. That means you don't mine all the shale and process it abouve ground, but -- by starting a fire underground -- you force off some of the gases and liquids, which can then be retorted."

In the process, water is driven out of the shale formations, most of which are aquifers, or water-bearing structures, on which millions of people in Western states depend for agricultural and other water supplies.

Water will refill the rock chambers, once oil has been removed. But, says Mr. Kneese, that water may contain "heavy metals and hydrocarbons of a carcinogenic character. I feel we are not in a position at the present time to safely launch an enormous synfuels campaign from the point of view of the environment."

Congress, mindful of environmental and budgetary restraints, sharply cut back President Carter's original proposal for crash development of synfuels, which would have cost $88 billion over the next decade. Final details await Senate and House action, but $20 billion is the likely spending figure.

Impelling the President's synfuels proposal was the nation's urgent need to reduce its reliance on foreign oil, expected to cost Americans up to $80 billion this year. Price aside, Middle Eastern turbulence threatens the security of future supplies.

Clearly, more energy must be developed from indigenous US sources, if oil imports are to be trimmed. In the case of synthetic fuels, two critical national interest appear toclash -- protection of the environment and less dependence on foreign oil.

"I think," says Paul T. Portney, senior staff economist of the White House council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), "that there are very difficult choices ahead of us here. This conflict between energy and the environment is one of the things that makes conservation such an attractive alternative.

"We reduce the need for new energy sources to the extend that we insulate our houses, make our buildings more energy efficient, and capture the advantages of passive solar heat by facing buildings to the south. Conservation is certainly the most environmentally benign new energy source."

Americans must be convinced, said Mr. Portney, that conservation "is not a perverse form of self-denial," but makes "good economic sense."

Spending "$10 or $15 per week to insulate your home is good sense, if that's going to save you $20 or $25 a week in heating costs." Once Americans grasp that fact, said Mr. Portney, "you'll begin to see much more conservation."

Already people in the US save more energy than is widely realized. Compared with a year ago, gasoline consumption is down nearly 10 percent, and the use of home heating oil and residual fuel oil -- burned by factories and utilities -- also is lower.

The United States, in fact, is the only major industrial power within the 20 -nation International Energy Agency (IEA) to have reduced oil consumption in 1979.

A fresh study by the Exxon Corporation, the world's largest petroleum firm, suggests that US oil consumption may have peaked in 1978, compared with earlier projections of 1984 as the year of probable maximum demand.

Despite the clash between energy and environmental priorities, and despite the subtlety of future problems cited by Mr. Kneese, some progress on cleaning up air and water was achieved during the decade of the 1970s.

Legislatively, said Mr. Portney, Congress began with the Clean Air Act and Federal Water Pollution Control Act, both amended in 1977. In 1974 came the Safe Drinking Water Act, followed two years later by the Toxic Substances Control Act and Resources Conservations and Recovery Act, designed to control the disposal of hazardous wastes.

"With respect to air, land, and water," said the CEQ official, "very impressive pieces of legislation were passed," supplemented by laws to improve consumer product safety and to protect Americans at the workplace.

"In trying to determine what effects these laws have had," said Mr. Portney, "we have to expect that the record will be a little more mixed -- will indicate a slower record of progress than some would like. But in certain areas there are pleasant surprises."

* With respect to air quality, said Mr. Portney, concentrations of two pollutants -- sulfur dioxide and total suspended particulates -- have been reduced about 20 percent on a national level since 1970.

* The record of improvement is less marked with carbon monoxide, ozone, and nitrogen oxides, associated in part with automobile usage.

"With respect to water," said MR. Portney, "everyone knows about some rivers and lakes that have come back from the dead. The Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie, at one point burst into flames because of high levels of chemical contamination. If I'm not mistaken, there's been a dramatic improvement there and in the condition of Lake Erie."

Being originally from Detroit, said Mr. Portney, "I know that the Detroit River now is able to support sport fishing, which it could not do before. Speaking overall, the record is mixed. New problems exist in areas of which we were not aware, but in other areas we have seen improvement."

Progress costs money. In 1977, according to the CEQ, compliance with federal environmental regulations cost US industry $19 billion -- about 1 percent of gross national product (GNP). More money was spent to satisfy state and local laws.

Outlays for new plant and equipment to reduce pollution -- that is, spending in addition to equipment already in place -- averages about $6 billion a year, according to Department of Commerce figures.

This spending, proportionately greater than environmental outlays by most other industrial powers, shows up in higher retail price tags for goods. The costs, in short, are visible; the benefits may be less so.

"When we ask electric utilities to install scrubbers," said Mr. Portney, "to control particulate and sulfur dioxide emissions, they may generates less electricity with a given amount of money than if they had poured all that money into new generating capacity.

Yet people living in the vicinity of the power plants, he said, "over the course of their lifetimes will be healthier," and less pollution damage will be done to buildings and crops.

In this tradeoff between costs and benefits, where does the public stand? How much are Americans willing to spend to preserve their environment?

"Given a choice between paying higher prices to protect the environment or paying lower prices and having somewhat more pollution," says Robert Cameron Mitchell, a sociologist and senior fellow at Resources for the Future, "62 percent of the public [in a 1978 national poll] chose the option of paying higher prices to protect the environment."

Mr. Mitchell said the results of his poll suprised policymakers in Washington , who had assumed that rising costs might chill public ardor for environmental protection.

But he detects a "mixed mind about technology" in American thinking. "A recent survey showed that only 52 percent of the public believed that technology will find a way to solve the problems of shortages and natural resources."

The younger people were, adds Mr. Mitchell, the smaller their trust in technology, "with an enormous gap between the very youngest people in the survey , people in their 20s, and people in their 50s and 60s."

Many people who distrust technology, such as nuclear power, favor the "soft energy" approach to solving environmental and energy problems -- namely, conservation and expanded use of solar applications.

Since the Carter administration and Congress still throw the weight of their efforts behind coal, synfuels, and nuclear energy, is the public ahead of the government in its perception of the future?

"Definitely," says Mr. Mitchell. "The public appears to be in advance of the President and Congress in supporting the search for less- polluting forms of energy."


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