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  • by Rob Burbank

Senator Mitchell Speaks Out

While on a campaign swing through Fryeburg last Tuesday to endorse Gary Wilfong, Democratic candidate for Maine state representative, U.S. Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) spoke with the Mountain Ear about acid rain.

Mitchell is widely known as a proponent of acid rain legislation, having introduced a bill to impose air pollution reduction measures in October of 1981, which called for a 10 million ton reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions over a 10-year period.

Studies have indicated acid rain--precipitation with a highly acidic pH level--is the result of airborne sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides mixing with water vapors in the atmosphere and falling to the earlh in the form of acidic precipitation. Studies have also indicated the damage caused by acid rain is harming lakes, rivers and streams plants, forests and wildlife in addition to suspect for respiratory complications in humans.

Mitchell served as keynote speaker on enviromental issues at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco this past week.

What are the chances of getting some substantial legislation passed on the acid rain issue this year?

It will be very difficult this year, more so because we won't be able to get it to the Senate floor for a vote, as opposed to not being able to pass it. Those are two different issues. The leadership in the Senate appears to pretty much have made a decision, in view of the president's opposition to acid rain legislation, not even to bring it up. Politically, the best thing for the president would be no to have it brought up at all.

I believe, though, that there is a very good chance that we'l pass acid rain legislation if not this year, then in the next Congress, because the evidence is accumulating rapidly and substantially in support of the need for it. There's been a dramatic change in public attitude of members of Congress in just the three years since I started with this. I drafted the first bill in the fall of 1981, and it was widely viewed as a gesture without any chance of even getting out of committee. Now I've gotten it out of committee twice, most recently this past Marc, by a 16 to 2 vote as part of a larger package for reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.

In that time the National Academy of Sciences has completed two detailed studies and published two extensive reports that support the need for legislation. Even the president's own advisory committee, appointed by the White House, recommended legislative action. The president appointed an ad hoc sicence advisory committee to review the literature and make a recommendation, and they concluded that while all the answers are not in and that there is a risk of premature action, that the risk of inaction is greater. That's one of the areas I find frustrating with the argument that we don't know enough to act now. It attempts to establish a standard of scientific certainty that has never been met in terms of acting on important matters of public health and safety. For example, it's the same argument that's been used on every environmental law that's ever been proposed, and, in fact, we know more about this subject than we did about the subject matter of the Clean Air Act when it was passed in 1970; or the Clean Water Act of the Toxic Waste Act.

The real question is not whether we have all the answers -- we do not. And we're unlikely ever to have all the scientific answers. The real question is, 'Do we know enough to make a reasonable judgement to act now.' And the answer clearly is, yes. We know the cause of the problem, It is plainly manmade emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and we know the effects. To a very large, although not total, extent, the principal adverse effect is the acidification of bodies of water. Not just in New England and Eastern Canada as had previously been suspected, but the most recent studies indicate all throughout the eastern United States as far south as Florida

The southern states are very much at risk. The effect of acidification of water is pain and very well documented. Fish cannot survive and ultimately, depending upon the degree of acidity, plants cannot survive.

A substantial portion of acid deposition at any given point in the eastern United States originates domestically. It is not all a case of long-range transport, it is a mixture, depending upon the wind velocity, wind direction, the height at which the emission occurs, the particular composition of the fuel that's burned. So, you can't just pin it to one source. That's why it requires some form of national approach. It's the only possible way to deal with it.

In effect, bodies of water are killed. In addition, and perhaps of more significance, is te potential adverse economic effect on forest growth. The evidence there is not as clear and conclusive as it is with water damage. Frequently, you will have spokesmen for the paper industry get up and say, 'Well, it hasn't been absolutely, conclusively proven that acid rain kills forests, therefore, we shouldn't do anything now.' But, that misses the central point that the effect on water resources is absolutely clear, and that's enough of a basis to act now. Whether or not there is, in fact, damage to forests is an additional reason, but not an exclusive reason in and for itself.

In Maine, this part of the state is a wood-based economy. Maine is 91 percent forest land, the highest percentage of any state in the union. The economy of this state is very largely dependent on the forest resources and products such as paper that flow from that. Even a modest retardation of growth has a tremendous economic effect. A one percent retardation of growth would have a terrific effect on the paper companies and all holders of forest land. And if it's more substantial than that, which the indications are that it is, then it would have even more of an effect.

Is the hesitation on the part of the Reagan administration due to it being an election year or due to such legislation being contrary to policies of the administration?

I think it is clearly the result of the president's attitude with respect to environmental policies. It is an attitude of deep hostility and the position the president has taken on acid rain is consistent with his position on a wide range of environmental areas. And it is, sad to say, not only inconsistent with the bipartisan protection of the environment which we've had in the country over many years, it is inconsistent with the record and history of the Republican Party. It is not true that Democrats are environmentalists and Republicans are not. The truth of the matter is, and I say this as a Democrat, that here in Maine and across the country, some of the most important environmental laws were the product of Republican initiatives and Republican effort. The president's policy is really repudiation of a very proud and historic Republican tradition of protection of the environment.

What were the provisions of your Senate bill to curb acid rain?

I introduced the first bill in October of 1981. It called for a reduction in the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in the eastern United States of 10 million tons over a 10-year period. Under my bill, the precise amount to be reduced for any particular facility and the method of reduction was left to the states and individual industries to be developed as part of a plan to be submitted to the EPA for approval. That is consistent with the Clean Air Act, of which is is supposed to be a part, which adopts a procedure of having each state develop a plan for attaining necessary levels of air quality within the state. It is also clearly the most efficient way of doing what would be a very expensive proposition because instead of mandating a particular way to do it, it leaves it up to each state and each industry. What may be the best in Ohio may not be the best in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

You can achieve the objective in many ways which fall into two basic categories. One is the utilization of fuel that contains less sulfur. That's either buying low-sulfur coal instead of high-sulfur coal or treat high-sulfur coal before you burn it or even in the combustion process.

The other way of doing it is through the installation of technology--basically scrubbers--which are installed that catch the sulfur after the combustion process has occurred, before it escapes into the air. The clean up can be achieved without spending anything on technology.

How do you deal with the job displacement in the high-sulfur coal industry?

One of the things were working on now is to devise a mechanism to deal with the problem of job displacement in the high-sulfur coal areas. Remember that it will increase employment in low-sulfur coal areas. The two states that will be hardest his and will have a net job loss will be Kentucky and Illinois. All other states will have a net increase.

How efficient is your plan of leaving clean-up methods up to the states?

The bill says that each state has to develop a plan that has to be submitted to and approved by the EPA, and it establishes a time frame in which they are required to do that. If they do not do it within that time frame, then a federally mandated plan goes into effect. You get the maximum flexibility at the state level but you still get the overall national supervision.

What's the next step in Congress toward getting legislation of this type passed?

The next step this year would be to get the bill taken up by the Senate since I has been approved by the committee. If they're able to block it, then I reintroduce the bill on the first day next year and we go through the process again of committee hearings, committee mark-ups, I think, most certainly committee approval, and we try to get it on the floor again next year.

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