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Clearing the air, part I A little environmental history

June 4, 2014

Let me tell you a story, Son.

In the olden days (not so long ago), a Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. That was back in the 1970s.

In the olden days (not so long ago), the public outcry against the damaging impacts of the toxic pesticide DDT on the environment—it was especially harmful to birds and other wildlife—was so loud that the EPA banned DDT for agricultural use. That was long ago, back in the 1970s. Today, scientists point to that ban as a key factor in the comeback of the bald eagle, which almost disappeared in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. (Back in the olden days (not so long ago), science routinely trumped politics. Just imagine that, Son!)

In the olden days (not so long ago), our country had the will to do something about the persistent problem of acid rain, which was killing our forests and poisoning lakes and streams, especially in the Northeast due to air-borne pollutants from coal-burning power plants both here and in the Mid-West. (Acid rain results chiefly from sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution, which when mixed with rain create sulfuric and nitric acids that fall from the sky on our land and open water. The effects of acidification last a long time.) According to the Adirondack Lakes Survey (fieldwork begun in 1984, completed in 1987 and the report issued in 1990), “between 20% and 40% of Adirondack lakes [were] acidified, with between 10% and 25% of them highly acidified” (, many unable to sustain fish and plant life any more.

In 1990, Congress updated the Clean Air Act adding amendments to control power plant emissions of SO2 and NOx. Since 2000, these pollutants, especially SO2, have been reduced by more than 10 million tons. (The program has been less successful in reducing NOx.) In 2005, a Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) was promulgated to reduce SO2 emissions in 28 eastern states… by over 70% from 2003 levels (