Friday, June 21, 2013

Acid Rain: Not Just an 80's Throwback

By Phil Coleman, Co-Editor The Sylvanian

In the 1980’s, the general public became aware of acid rain. Ecologists had been aware of acid precipitation for some time before that, but, as is usually the case, time passed until the term caught on. “Rain” is a better catch word than “precipitation.” And the fact was that sulfur and nitrous oxide compounds were in the air and coming to earth in rain, snow, sleet and plain old dust.

These compounds and a handful of others – especially mercury – were poisoning lakes and stunting trees, as well as giving people health problems. Acid rain was a growing problem because industrial processes were growing. The most serious contributor was the burning of coal. Coal-fired power plants, without adequate emissions cleaning processes, were the worst perpetrators.

Another Look   

But then along came the global climate crisis. Carbon dioxide emissions are affecting the ozone layer, causing the temperature to increase, glaciers to melt, and oceans to rise, and the climate to change, which makes farm land into desert and encourages violent storms. 

Global climate disruption is a serious world problem. And the culprits who produced acid rain are the same culprits who are the principal producers of climate disruption -- coal-fired power plants. Faced with a new problem, the coal industry developed a theory that carbon from coal plants could be “sequestered” by being pumped underground where it wouldn’t harm the ozone layer.

The industry called this “Clean Coal” technology. Sequestering carbon is technically doable if you ignore the expense involved, the energy required to transport and pump the carbon, and the increase in coal burning required to produce a unit of electricity. But the industry loved it. Companies petitioned the government to fund studies and trials to sequester carbon. They didn’t wait for the results: billboards proclaiming “Clean Coal” went up all over coal country.

The industry is much better at advertising than is the environmental community. Our response was vigorous but not as effective. And no one is talking about acid rain anymore.


We all admire the juggler who can keep three or more balls in the air at once. But most of us most of the time are not jugglers. We can’t keep two slogans going at once. When we learned about global warming, we lost track of acid rain. The facts haven’t changed, but our attention was diverted. Isn’t it remarkable that the power plant wanted to continue polluting our rivers and lakes and stunting our forests even while they were proclaiming Clean Coal?

Fortunately, not everyone has dropped the ball. Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has been at work forcing the dirtiest power plants out of business. Using the Clean Air Act, they filed suit just last year against the Homer City, PA, power plant, one of the biggest polluters and one of the slowest to clean up.

The global climate crisis is a serious global problem. But let’s not forget that acid rain is an ongoing and closely-related problem. And Pennsylvania is one of its targets.

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