Over the decades it’s become clear that an environmental crisis is the media’s baby; environmental progress is an orphan. Acid rain was an environmental calamity in the 1980s, claiming much media and public attention. The New York Times printed 338 articles with “acid rain” in the headline from 1975 to 2009; 85 percent were in the 1980s, an average of 29 per year.
Some congressmen were up in arms about the “crisis.” Rep. Henry Waxman of California wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 1983 that rain as acid as vinegar was falling in virtually every state, “corrupting our natural resources” and “eating away at our buildings, automobiles and monuments.”
These days, acid rain barely musters a headline, with good reason. The progress in reducing acidity has been dramatic. In the last 10 years, The New York Times headlined only seven articles with acid rain. Of course, none emphasized the progress. One, in 2007, maintained, “Acid rain remains a serious problem in many parts of the country, but nowhere has it been more damaging than in the Adirondacks, where vast forests have been decimated and more than 500 lakes and ponds have been left unable to support many species of native fish.”
The recent progress in cleaning the air and rain stands in stark contrast to the murky claims of worsening conditions in the 1970s and 1980s. Acid rain was considered a new threat in those days, damaging forests and crops, acidifying lakes, killing fish and eroding stone buildings and monuments. The NYT, in 1985, called acid rain “the slow poison eating the life out of lakes and trees from the Rockies to the Eastern Seaboard.”
The “poison” certainly was slow. It had been around for a century, largely from the burning of coal and its generation of sulfur gases, mostly sulfur dioxide. A 1986 acid rain report of the National Academy of Sciences stated, “In 1975, coal consumption was about 550 million tons/yr, roughly the same as around 1920 and 1943.” So, if coal burning caused acid rain, it must have been as bad early in the 20th century as in the 1980s.
In fact, it was probably worse before the 1980s. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that sulfur dioxide in the air decreased 67 percent from 1964 to 1979. The improvement has not slowed; the decrease was 63 percent in Eastern states in the last 6 years.
With the decrease of sulfur in the air the average pH of rain has risen by 0.6 units in 28 eastern and midwestern states since 1980. This equates to a fourfold decline in acidity.
Although the Northeast was said to suffer most from acid rain, improvement began early even there. At Hubbard Brook, N.H., where the most reliable early measurements were made, sulfur in rainfall decreased 33 percent from 1965 to 1980. A 1984 article concluded, “these northeastern (US) data indicate that sulfate levels in precipitation remained basically steady up to about 1950, and then significantly declined by 1980.”
Acidification of lakes and the killing of fish in the Adirondack area were of special concern. A study published in 2012 of 89 area lakes found that sulfate decreased significantly in 79 lakes and increased in none between 1991 and 2007.
The coal burning that produced sulfur and caused acid rain was newsworthy in the 1980s but not new. Early measurements in the Southeast were made to determine if rain supplied sufficient sulfur for field crops. Amounts deposited in the 1920s to1950s were as great or greater than in the 1980s. At Griffin, Ga., the average was 7 pounds per acre in 1940-43, the same as in 1980. From 2009-2011 an average of only 2.4 pounds per acre fell in rain. Acidity of rain has dropped by two-thirds.
What is remarkable is that progress has occurred even though the United States burns twice as much coal today as in the 1970s. The rain is less acid and sulfur in the air has been reduced by more than 80 percent, giving poignant meaning to the expression, “clean coal.”
(University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century. )