So what is being done to counteract the effects of acid rain? Well, when it became apparent that acid rain was a global problem the federal government got involved and started to implement legislation to reduce the emissions of harmful gases into the atmosphere including those that were linked to acid rain. This started in 1967 with the Air Quality Act of 1967 and evolved into the Clean Air Act that exists today. The following timeline charts this progression. This is for acid rain emissions only and does not include the many other important events that led to the evolution of the Clean Air Act. (From a timeline of the Clean Air Act) This will be used in the lesson plans so that students can research the evolution of the Clean Air Act evaluate its progress.
A Timeline of The Clean Air Act
1967: Air Quality Act of 1967
The first ever legislation aimed at reducing pollution in the United States. It fails because no there were no deadlines or enforcement. But it is a good first step.
1970: Clean Air Act- the federal law designed to make sure that all Americans have safe air to breathe. “The law seeks to protect or environment from damage caused by air pollution.” (Clean Air Trust) The law targets six “criteria” pollutants including nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.
1977: Clean Air Act Amendments
many states failed to make the mandated targets so amendments had to be made. The New Source Review was one of these. This targeted older factories that did not have to comply with the Clean Air Act because lawmakers thought that they factories would have been retired before long. But many of these factories were still going strong and some were even expanding. The New Source Review required that all factories that wanted to expand needed to undergo EPA assessment and adopt pollution control technology.
1988: New Source Review Challenged in Court-
Wisconsin Electric Power Company sues the EPA. In this case the Wisconsin Electric Power Company challenged the EPA, charging that they did not have to abide by the new laws because they were ‘grandfathered’ in. The power company was upgrading its factories and since it was adding new facilities the EPA felt that these should comply with the new laws. The power company did not agree.
1990: Clean Air Act Amendments-acid rain control added in the form of offering companies “choices to meet emission standards” (Environmental Defense) These were broken down into phases I and II. “Phase I went into effect in 1995 requiring big coal burning boilers in 110 power plants in 211 Midwest, Appalachian, Southeastern and Northeastern states will have to reduce releases of sulfur dioxide. In 2000 Phase II went into effect to further reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Total sulfur dioxide releases for the country’s power plants will be permanently limited to the level set by the Clean Air Act for the year 2000.” (EPA’s Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act)
sulfur dioxide emissions are reduced 27% from 1970
It is clear that the Clean Air Act has worked, but more still needs to be done.
EPA Trading Rights
The EPA’s Acid Rain Program, created in 1990 during the second round of amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1970, has been credited with successfully reducing air pollutants that contribute to acid rain formation. The cornerstone of the acid rain program is the innovative allowance - trading component. This encourages affected utilities to reduce SO2 emissions through a market-based trading system designed to cap the total amount of emissions each year while giving companies the flexibility to determine the most cost-effective means by which to meet EPA limits.
The program requires affected companies to install emission detection equipment to monitor all regulated pollutants. This allows the EPA to track overall emissions and compliance with regulations. Each company is given a certain number of allowances, which for SO2 is equivalent to one ton of SO2 emitted per year per allowance. The amount of a particular pollutant a company is permitted to emit is therefore dictated by the number of allowances it has in its possession. If the company goes over its limit, the EPA can levy fines or take allowances away from future years, reducing the company’s limit in the future and helping maintain the overall emissions limit over time. If, on the other hand, the company uses less than what it is permitted, it may bank the remaining allowances for future years or may sell them to other entities which may need to increase their own limits in the current or future years.
This creative program gives incentive to companies to develop new cost-effective technologies by which to reduce emission of pollutants, while allowing those companies who cannot do so due to various restraints in the short term to continue on without facing undo hardships from new regulations.
While the location of emissions can be varied due to trading, the overall level of emissions is maintained. Unfortunately for those in the Northeast, some Midwestern companies fell under a separate “grandfather” clause of the program. It was recognized early on that it was much more expensive to retrofit older facilities with modern cleaning and monitoring equipment than it was to build new ones with the same features. Due to this, and the fact that the economy as a whole could have been devastated should all companies be forced to comply immediately, many older utilities were granted asylum from the new regulations, allowing them to produce more pollutants than their newer and future counterparts. Although lengthening the time which it may take to reduce pollution overall, the program nevertheless provides several incentives to replace these older plants with newer cleaner facilities.
The allowance program has received praise by many groups around the country, credited with reducing acid rain-inducing pollutants over the past decade since its inception. As figure 6 shows, SO2 emissions have been reduced by 24% since 1992, as opposed to 1% during the previous decade, prior to the acid rain program. Air quality has improved at twice the rate in regards to SO2 since the start of the program, improving 17% from 1982-1992 while jumping 35% in the past decade alone. (See Tables 7 and 8)
In addition to the market scheme developed by the government there are other things being done to help alleviate the problem of acid rain, with varying levels of success. Some solutions target the symptoms of the problem while others still target the source. With each possible solution the potential benefits and costs must be weighed before a choice can be made.
Building taller smokestacks
An early possible solution to acid rain was for industrial polluters to build taller smokestacks that would remove emissions from an immediate area and send it away with the wind. This was very self-serving and did not address the real issues. For instance Electric Utilities in the Midwestern United States built taller smokestacks to reduce pressure from local environmental activists to reduce smog, but what resulted was a movement of the emissions via wind to the Northeastern United States where it fell to the earth as acid precipitation. The end result being that over 90% of the lakes in the Adirondack mountains are acidic.
Developing Acid Resistant Fish
This is an example of a short - sighted solution. There is actually scientific research being conducted to develop fish that can withstand low pH environments. (See Table 5 for a list of aquatic organisms and their relative pH tolerances) Again this does not address the real issue at hand.
Using coal naturally low in sulfur
Coal deposits vary in the amount of sulfur they contain. It is possible to find deposits low in sulfur and use these, but these are non-renewable resources and once these supplies have been exhausted, then it may be inevitable to go back to the regular, high sulfur coal.
Removing sulfur and nitrogen compounds from fuel and emissions
Scientists have investigated methods of removing compounds that lead to the creation of SOx and NOx from fossil fuels as well as from emissions. For example, washing coal to remove sulfur, spraying wet limestone into hot factory exhaust and burning fuel at a lower more even temperature. Each of these solutions has a drawback. Burning fuels at a lower temperature reduces factory efficiency and spraying limestone seduces sulfur emissions but not nitrogenous ones.
Using alternate forms of energy
There are other ways to generate power than burning fossil fuels. Hydroelectric, nuclear, solar and wind power are all energy alternatives that create little or no acid-producing pollutants. But each of these has its own impact on the environment that must be considered before they are implemented.
Adding buffer to lakes
Buffer has been added to some acidic lakes in the Adirondacks in upstate New York and to lakes in the Black Forest in Germany. This is also called “liming” the lakes, because it is limestone that is used to neutralize the acid. This does not solve the problem because more lime needs to be added if acid rain continues. Also too much lime can have negative effects on the ecosystem.
Even though it may seem like acid precipitation is such a large problem that the individual is helpless to control, it is important to realize that “acid rain is caused by the cumulative actions of millions of individual people” (EPA’s Clean Air Market Programs). Therefore we have the individual responsibility of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels thereby reducing the harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
The government can do its part with big businesses, but what can the everyday person do to help reduce the effects of acid rain? Firstly, we need to find alternate sources of energy. There are many other ways to generate electricity other than burning fossil fuels. These include solar power, nuclear power, hydropower and wind energy. While using these sources may pose some unique problems (such as what to do with nuclear waste?) they are avenues that deserve further exploration if we are to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. There are new vehicles on the market that are hybrids which use a combination of fossil fuel and electricity and electric cars that help to reduce the consumption of gasoline.
Additionally we can:
- Turn off all appliances, lights and computers when not in use
- Use more energy efficient appliances, which are becoming more and more available nowadays
- Properly insulate your home
- Carpool, use mass transportation, ride a bicycle or walk to your destination
- Maintain your vehicle well
- Keep the thermostat at 68 F in the winter and 72 F in the summer
- Stay well informed