F. Herbert Bormann, the Yale and Dartmouth ecologist who discovered Acid Rain in 1971, died June 7th at the age of 90. Acid rain has become one of the most ubiquitous impacts of industrial pollution and has served as a rallying point for eco-activists and a catalyst for governmental environmental action, such as the Clean Air Act.
Acid rain is caused by increased levels of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides in the air, primarily due to smokestack emissions. In 1971, Bormann discovered that the water in the New Hampshire forest where he was conducting his research was considerably more acidic than normal. Subsequent tests showed that the acidity of water all over the east coast had increased up to 1,000 percent since the 1950s.
Bormann and others chronicled the effects of acid rain. Plants suffer problems with leaves and bark when subjected to acidic water many vital soil microbes can’t survive in such conditions. The changing pH of rivers and lakes can lead to a number of well documented problems in fish and other aquatic animals. In certain pHs, fish eggs wont open and insects die en mass. The brook trout has been largely eliminated from the Adirondack region because of increased water acidity. Humans can also suffer serious health consequences when we consume food tainted by acid rain.
The widespread problem of acid rain was sharply reduced to a great extent by the institution of a cap and trade system. In 1990, after a 10 year study into the issue, Congress passed the Clean Air Act (Dr. Bormann testified at the hearings). Title IV of the act established decreasing caps on sulfur dioxide emissions and allowed companies and power plants to determine for themselves how they would comply with the law.
The Acid Rain Program has been hailed as a great success for the EPA. The EPA exceeded its long term sulfur dioxide goal in 2010 and SO2 emissions levels have dropped 40% since the 1990s. Acid rain levels have dropped 65% since 1976. Evidence also suggests that annual emissions of sulfur dioxide were reduced by 8 million tons, nitrous oxide by 2.7 million tons, and mercury by 10 tons, thanks to the cap and trade program.
Mitt Romney, along with scores of other conservatives, has decried cap and trade programs for raising costs of production by forcing companies to control their pollution. According to Mr. Romney, the EPA has “endless new regulations touching on countless other forms of economic activity—regulations that drive up costs, hinder investment, and destroy jobs”. He went on to say that “there are other people who would like to put in place a cap-and-trade program and dramatically increase the cost of energy. That’s their view. And by the way, that would kill a lot of jobs.”
However, Mark Leavitt, the man who would lead Romney’s transition team if he were to win the coming election, doesn’t agree with the presumptive nominee on this issue:
We need to take the giant step toward national market-based solutions; to do that we need only look to our own experience. That is exactly what we’re doing with cap and trade. The cap and trade strategy was key to the breakthrough against acid rain. It is central to Clear Skies. The cap and trade approach shows us again and again that people do more and they do it faster when they have an incentive to do what’s in the public’s interest.
Acid rain is still a problem, as is industrial pollution in general. But since the 1970s, and primarily after the Clean Air Act, great strides have been taken to reduce the number and intensity of acid rain occurrences. The project has been, for the most part, a success and the lessons learned from the cap and trade initiative should be applied elsewhere.
Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center for American Progress.