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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Smoke from burning coal causes acid rain. Wisconsin has been a national leader in acid rain research, policy and law. © Bureau of Air Management

Passing the acid test

Early cooperation cut the sting of acid rain and ozone.

Anne Urbanski


Smoke from burning coal causes acid rain. Wisconsin has been a national leader in acid rain research, policy and law.

© Bureau of Air Management
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A case that became a cause

Early action and partnerships protected northern Wisconsin lakes. This resulted in sound public policy that helped resources, prepared state utility companies and paved the way for a national program to stem acid rain. Wisconsin's 1986 law spawned a host of research projects that helped unravel how acid rain is carried, where it falls and which natural resources are particularly susceptible to acid damage. How did it happen?

Acid rain first became a concern in the late 1970s when reports from Canada and Europe showed that rain and snow, acidified by pollutants as a consequence of burning coal, were damaging lakes and forests.

Could it happen in Wisconsin? Researchers aimed to find out.

During the summer of 1979, DNR research teams tested lakes and concluded that half of the waters sampled in north central Wisconsin had relatively low alkalinity. Plant and animals in these lakes would be vulnerable to damage as rainfall and melting snow became more acidic.

This preliminary data raised concern because 80 percent of the state's 15,000 lakes are found in 23 northern Wisconsin counties. Moreover, these counties depend on tourism, fishing and forestry industries for their economic well-being. Continued testing indicated that a substantial amount of the pollutants that cause acid rain were generated within Wisconsin. The damage that acid rain could pose to buildings, building materials, human and animal health, and visibility also needed to be assessed.

In 1980 DNR formed a special Acid Deposition Task Force to guide research, evaluate potential problems and suggest policy issues that would have to be resolved. Between 1981 and 1985, a Joint Acid Deposition Technical Review Committee (comprising representatives from the DNR, Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin electric utilities) conducted cooperative research funded by government, the Wisconsin utilities and the Electric Power Research Institute. The results of that research helped forge consensus to pass Wisconsin's acid rain law.

The legislation set limits to aggressively reduce nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx) from gas-fired engines starting in 1991 and sulfur dioxide emissions starting in 1993. Major sulfur emitters included electric utilities, large industries and municipal sources.

Costs to monitor results through research were passed onto utility customers for 10 years, until June 1996. A council representing environmental groups, utilities, industry, the University of Wisconsin System, the Public Service Commission, the DNR and the Department of Administration, directed the research to evaluate how the environment would respond as sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced.

The work of this Acid Deposition Research Council formed a national model that made Wisconsin a national leader in acid rain research and policies. The council's consensus approach agreed on research goals and funding that enabled objective evaluation of the findings.

There were other benefits. Diverse interests who worked together developed trust in their collective judgment. As federal acid rain controls were debated, the Wisconsin utilities and the DNR were comfortable supporting strategies that gave electric utilities more flexibility to trade and sell emission credits while still reaching clean air goals. These provisions were incorporated into the federal law. The Wisconsin utilities, which had reduced their emissions earlier, when emission credits were less costly, consequently kept energy costs lower for ratepayers.

A case that became a cause

A lawsuit filed by the State of Wisconsin 11 years ago eventually led state and federal agencies to totally rethink their approach to cleaning up ozone pollution that drifts across state lines.

In April 1987 Wisconsin filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that EPA had failed to require Illinois and Indiana to submit adequate plans to reduce ground-level ozone and meet federal health standards.

The Wisconsin DNR was convinced that air pollutants from the Chicago area drifted into southeastern Wisconsin and were part of the reason we couldn't meet the federal ozone standards in the greater Milwaukee area, said Larry Bruss, chief of DNR's Ozone & State Implementation Plan Coordination Section. "We filed suit to force planning to reduce ozone in the Chicago and Gary industrial area, and to apply the federal penalties for ignoring the deadlines to submit such plans," Bruss added.

In January 1989 the court found in Wisconsin's favor. During the next few months, as EPA worked to meet the federal court order, it became apparent that EPA's air quality model was outdated - it couldn't accurately simulate complex environmental interactions nor calculate how ozone forms and moves throughout the southern Lake Michigan area. As a result, the parties to the lawsuit agreed to set aside the court order and work together to research and develop solutions to the ozone-transport problem.

Since it appeared a much broader area than the Milwaukee-Chicago-Gary corridor was affected by drifting ozone, Wisconsin, Illinois and EPA invited Indiana and Michigan to join their pioneering effort. In September 1989 the four states and EPA agreed to pool their data, tools and research capabilities. The program, which started in 1990, continues today.

Monitoring equipment provides important data for decisionmaking.

© Robert Queen
Monitoring equipment.

Preliminary findings released in April 1994 surprised researchers and policy makers alike. Results showed that much more ozone enters the southern Lake Michigan region from outside the area than was previously thought. That finding, coupled with similar data from other ozone studies, led policy makers to believe that a larger-scale effort would be needed to reduce ozone that forms and drifts across the eastern United States. In early 1995 the Ozone Transport Assessment Group involving 37 states and hundreds of stakeholders started meeting. By November 1997, the group's collective recommendations formed the basis for EPA's plan for 22 states to significantly reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, now believed to be the main culprit in forming unhealthy levels of ozone in the eastern United States.

Anne Urbanski writes for DNR's Bureau of Air Management.