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Great Lakes Article:

Tackle acid rain, new report urges

BY MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT
Article courtesy of the Globe and Mail
October 21, 2001

Acid rain will continue to devastate the lakes and forests of Eastern Canada and the United States unless emissions of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants take another dramatic cut, says a new report released Tuesday.

The report, by the Clean Air Task Force, a conservation group based in Boston, said the full recovery of ecosystems would then take another half-century in the areas most sensitive to acid rain.

If current acid emission curbs aren't further strengthened, the report predicted:

  • Atlantic salmon populations will continue to decline in Nova Scotia;
  • About 95,000 Canadian lakes, mainly in popular vacation areas of Southern Ontario and Quebec, will remain damaged;
  • The declining vigour that has been noticed in sugar maples and red spruce, both important commercially for Eastern Canada, will spread to other trees.

    Canada and the United States have pledged to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, the main gas that causes acid rain, by about 50 per cent from the peak levels of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The task force says the cut should be closer to 90 per cent.

    Canada has gone beyond its target, still precipitation is often 10 times more acidic than unpolluted rain water, according to the report.

    "Despite the emissions reductions, the problem of devastated forests, lakes, streams and ecosystems due to acid rain has not been solved," the report says. "A growing body of evidence shows that without significant additional cuts in acid rain forming emissions many of the problems associated with acid rain will persist for many, many decades."

    Environmentalists say governments need to place tougher regulations on coal-fired power plants and metal smelters, two of the big sources of acid rain pollutants.

    Ontario, for instance, has pledged to cut its remaining discharges of sulphur dioxide by a further 50 per cent by 2015, but even this might not be enough.

    "There is no jurisdiction in Canada that has committed to what is needed in emission reductions," said John Wellner, a spokesman for Pollution Probe, a Toronto environmental group.

    Achieving a big cut in emissions will be expensive. A study two years ago by the federal and provincial governments estimated that a 75-per-cent cut would cost $2-billion annually.

    Much of the cost would be borne by coal-fired power plants, which have the technology to cut their discharges dramatically, but at a high price. Ontario Power Generation is proposing new technology to cut nitrogen oxides, another acid gas, from some of its stations at a cost of $250-million.

    "I don't see us looking at 75 per cent to 80 per cent [reductions] because it's well beyond our contribution to the environmental impact," said John Earl, a spokesman for the utility.

    But the report says the reduction targets instituted in the 1980s and early 1990s were made without the benefit of new research showing how sensitive the environment is to this threat.

    Atlantic salmon in Nova Scotia, which spend their early years in fresh water streams before migrating to the ocean to mature, are suffering an enormous loss of habitat, the report says.

    A review of 49 Nova Scotia rivers that historically supported salmon found populations extinct in 14 and severely affected in 20. "Loss of salmon is correlated with increased acidity," the report notes.

    Watersheds in Quebec and Ontario continue to sustain large amounts of damage from acid rain, with a loss of fish and aquatic communities in an estimated 30,000 lakes.

    Acid rain also damages trees, making them less able to resist insects, disease and drought.

    Red spruce, the provincial tree of Nova Scotia, is severely affected. The report says that since the 1960s, more than half of the large canopy red spruce in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and Green Mountains of Vermont have died.

    In Ontario and Quebec, the productivity of hardwood forests dominated by sugar maples is declining because soil nutrients are leached from the ground by acid precipitation.

    Although most of the research on tree decline has focused on sugar maples and red spruce, the report says acid rain injures other species.

    White birch and mountain paper birch are in decline along the Bay of Fundy, probably because of acid fog, which is common in the area.

    The report says that, at current rates of acid deposition, forest soils in the U.S. southeast will not have enough reserves of calcium to support the growth of merchantable timber within 80 to 150 years.

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