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In a Fog on Acid Rain

December 18, 1987

Canadians must have watched the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting with a certain envy after their own experiences in dealing with the American government concerning acid rain. The crucial difference was that in the Soviet-American meetings both sides wanted a deal on arms control. In the U.S.-Canadian meetings only the Canadians really wanted to discuss pollution from American smokestacks that rains acid on Canadian--and U.S.--lakes and forests.

The result: Nothing much has happened since President Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney met in March, 1986. At that session Reagan, who had resolutely maintained that acid rain needed more study, endorsed a recommendation by special envoys from both governments for a $5-billion research program to find cleaner ways to burn coal in power plants and factories.

It took a full year for any research money to show up in a White House budget, and there still is little action on the program itself. When a President does not attach any particular urgency to an expensive project, Congress is likely to follow his lead, or lack of lead.

Meanwhile, Congress is poring over two acid-rain programs of its own. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has approved a requirement that U.S. plants reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions by 12 million tons by the year 2000, and oxides-of-nitrogen emissions by 4 million tons by 1996. Sponsored by Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), the program would allow plants to comply by installing scrubbers in smokestacks or by cleaning the coal that they burn--both of which cost money. They could also switch to low-sulfur coal, which could cost mining jobs.

Mitchell's bill follows the polluter-pays principle. This means that electric ratepayers in the Middle West and other consumers would ultimately foot the cost.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the House subcommittee on health and the environment, favors requiring smaller reductions in emissions at the outset, rising gradually. American taxpayers would help finance the cleanup through government subsidies that would prevent Midwest ratepayers' bills from rising more than 10%. The subsidies would total $8 billion or less over a decade, according to Office of Technology Assessment estimates.

Opposition to Mitchell's measure is formidable, particularly among Midwestern senators. Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, from coal-dependent West Virginia, is not likely to be in a hurry to schedule a vote. Some House members hope to move their legislation early next year, but, without prodding from the White House, nobody else seems to be in a hurry.

Until White House leadership emerges, one must conclude--as Mitchell has--that Reagan's exchanges with Mulroney on acid rain were "public-relations gestures, a sham to enable Mulroney to go back to Canada and say, 'We got something.' " All Mulroney has gotten so far is more acid rain.

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