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Acid rain clouds build. Political and scientific pressures on Congress to finally `do something' about pollutants

After years of getting nowhere, acid rain legislation may soon start seeing some action in Congress. This week two key governors presented a proposal calling for significant reductions in emissions of the pollutants that cause acid rain.

Pressure from the scientific community is building as well. Evidence has been found that acid rain not only affects land and lakes but harms plant and animal life in coastal waters, too. There are also signs that more Eastern streams are vulnerable to acid rain than previously thought.

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These political and scientific factors are helping to create an environment in Congress that is more favorable toward acid rain legislation than ever before.

``There is no place for Congress to hide,'' says Dan Becker of Environmental Action, an awareness and lobbying group.

The proposal presented by Govs. Mario Cuomo of New York and Richard Celeste of Ohio shows the possibility of breaking the inertia that has characterized the acid rain debate. The two governors represent states on opposite sides of the issue. Ohio has the highest level of sulfur-dioxide emissions in the nation; New York is perhaps the state most harmed by that chemical in the form of acid rain.

``We feel this proposal is sellable to all the regions of the country,'' says Francis Sheehan, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo. ``The hope is that this will break the logjam in Congress,'' he says. The senators from New York will introduce the proposal as an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1977.

A Senate bill to reauthorize and amend the Clean Air Act has been ready for full debate on the Senate floor for more than seven months. Environmentalists say the acid rain provisions in that bill, which most of their groups support, are tougher on polluters than the Cuomo-Celeste agreement. House legislation is under way but still at the committee level.

The Cuomo-Celeste proposal calls for a three-phase, 43 percent reduction in annual sulfur-dioxide emissions by the year 2003, and about 25 percent cut in annual nitrogen-oxides emissions by 1998.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are produced when coal, petroleum, or natural gas is burned. A portion of these pollutants reacts with moisture in the air to make acids. The acids may travel hundreds of miles before they fall to earth in rain, fog, or snow.

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Half the cost of compliance, under the governors' $900 million-a-year plan, would be footed by polluters. Responsibility for supplying the nation's strategic petroleum reserves would be turned over to US companies that import oil, freeing up $650 million a year in federal money. This, along with an additional $250 million a year in federal funds (from taxpayers), would be used to help utilities comply with the standards.

Several scientific findings have helped push the acid rain issue.

An Environmental Defense Fund study released in April concludes that acid rain is a major contributor to the nitrogen that is strangling some coastal waters in the Eastern United States. Too much nitrogen leads to excessive algae growth, chokes off light and oxygen, and therefore harms marine life.

Another report, by the Environmental Protection Agency, states that an unexpectedly high number of streams up and down the East Coast are already acidic or have a low capacity for neutralizing acids, making them especially vulnerable to acidic precipitation.

Although evidence linking acid rain to forest damage is less firm, ``it's no longer so much whether acid rain contributes to the damage, but how it contributes,'' says Robert Rycroft, deputy assistant director of the science, technology, and public-policy program at George Washington University. Scientists find it difficult to separate damage caused by general air pollution from that caused by acid rain.

Opponents of acid rain legislation in Congress and industry are not convinced that acid rain damage has reached the level that makes the cost of correcting the problem worth it. They say that meeting proposed standards would make coal more expensive to use and cause demand for the fuel to drop. That in turn would result in unemployment, high utility rates, and decreased international competitiveness. The total costs of complying with the acid rain provisions of the Senate bill would be between $6 billion and $8 billion a year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A staff member from the office of Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia says the senator looks to federal support for clean-coal technology as a cheaper way to keep emissions on their present downward trend. Senator Byrd has recently been criticized for not bringing the new clean-air legislation to the floor for debate. The staff member says the most likely result of that legislation would be to reduce the demand for West Virginia's high-sulfur coal and put some miners out of work. West Virginia is already one of the poorest states in the nation.

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