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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Coal burning to create electricity contributed to acid precipitation across wide regions. © Dean Tvedt
Coal burning to create electricity contributed to acid precipitation across wide regions.

© Dean Tvedt

August 2007

Instructive for the future

Can Wisconsin's approach to tackling a borderless environmental problem in the '70s be applied to the needs of a new century?

Jon Heinrich

Wisconsin acts with Act 296
National paralysis
What worked well | Acid or alkali?
Lasting benefits from the way Wisconsin addressed acid rain

As the debate on climate change continues to rage, it's worthwhile to revisit a problem that was the global warming of its era. In the 1970s, the presence of "acid rain" and its effect on surface waters was a matter much disputed and even denied in some quarters, particularly in Washington, D.C.


Studies initiated by the Wisconsin DNR at the time indicated rainfall in the state was highly acidic, and that lakes in northern Wisconsin were changing in response to the increased acidity. Wisconsin began a program of requiring meaningful reductions in smokestack emissions from electric utilities and industries more than four years ahead of the federal 1990 Clean Air Act amendments to control acid deposition. Wisconsin's willingness to learn and to act made the state an acknowledged national leader in emerging air quality issues back in the '70s and '80s.

Wisconsin acts with Act 296

Lack of action at the federal level compelled the DNR air program to document the acid rain problem in the upper Great Lakes and take action to address it. While the Reagan administration stood firm against taking any initiative on acid rain, Wisconsin established the Acid Deposition Research Council to direct basic research. Findings showed lakes in northern Wisconsin had been adversely affected by acid rain. Despite this evidence, there was still resistance to adopting state requirements to reduce smokestack emissions.

The decision of a blue ribbon panel appointed by Governor Tony Earl broke the deadlock. The panel, whose members included DNR Secretary C.D. Besadny, William Keepers of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, and Mary Lou Munts, Chair of the Public Service Commission, concluded that Wisconsin electric utilities were contributing to the acid rain problem in Wisconsin and that state action was appropriate. The decision was a major victory in the national fight to get action started at a federal level because it showed that acid rain was also a problem in areas beyond the northeast United States and Canada. On April 22, 1986 Governor Earl signed into law 1985 Wisconsin Act 296 – the "acid rain law."

Wisconsin's acid rain law set targets, goals and timetables for reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. It provided funding for research and studies to identify economical means of achieving emission reductions. When the federal Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 it contained emission trading and capping provisions similar to those pioneered in Wisconsin Act 296.

As a result of the state law and the subsequent federal requirements, we've achieved the primary goal of reducing the acidity of rainfall in the state. Rain has a normal acidity of pH 5.0 to pH 6.0. In the early '80s, rainfall ranged from pH 4.4 in southeastern Wisconsin to pH 4.8 in northwestern Wisconsin. In 2005, rainfall ranged from pH 4.8 in the southeast to pH 5.3 in the northwest. The reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions by major electric utilities has certainly contributed to this improvement. Sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants operated by the major utilities in Wisconsin have been reduced 67 percent below 1980 levels, from 506,954 tons to 168,633 tons in 2005.

We were successful thanks to public support, cooperation among key stakeholders, and the willingness of government to invest in the research necessary to determine the extent of an environmental problem and its likely causes. Although a definitive causal relationship was not established, it was clear that the coal burned by industry and the electric utilities was the principal contributor to acid deposition in the state. Armed with that knowledge, it made sense to take prompt action rather than wait for federal regulation to catch up with the facts. Wisconsin's proactive stance had economic as well as environmental benefits: Because our electric utilities had already begun to reduce their emissions, they were in a good position to take advantage of the national emission trading program established in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

National paralysis

There was little movement nationally on acid rain during the time Wisconsin was developing requirements to address acid deposition. Industry argued that natural factors rather than fossil fuel combustion caused acid rain, and insisted that natural sources of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides were a significant part of the acid rain problem. Those opposed to reducing emissions from coal combustion portrayed acid rain as a natural phenomenon that had always existed. Industries argued that no action should be taken because no one could pinpoint the sources of acid rain or trace lake acidification back to emissions from specific stacks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supported this view by concluding that it was not possible to distinguish between the amount of acidification that was manmade and the amount that was caused naturally. Those opposed to action had a litany of arguments that were modified over time, passing from "There may be a problem, but it has always been there" to "We don't know what causes the problem" to "We don't know how to act" and finally "Even if we acted, it would not help."

Acid or alkali?
Chemists use a pH test to determine a solution's relative acidity or alkalinity. This test measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in the solution, and ranks the solution's acidity/alkalinity on a scale from 0 to 14. A pH value of 1 is very acidic (like battery acid), while a pH value of 14 is very alkaline (like lye). A pH value of 7 is neutral, like distilled water. The pH scale is logarithmic, which means that pH 6 is 10 times more acid than pH 7, and pH 5 is 100 times more acid than pH 7.

The energy crisis of the '70s was still fresh in our minds in the early '80s and contributed to the national inertia on acid rain. With a nation dependent on foreign oil supplies, the Carter administration initiated actions such as converting power plants from cleaner burning fuel oil to coal. The memory of the "oil shocks" slowed down the speed at which the federal government required emission reductions from coal-fired power plants.

During the debate on acid rain, EPA damaged its credibility and politicized its role. The agency did not reflect the opinions of a majority of the scientific community, which had called for reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. A 1981 National Academy of Sciences report recommended a 50 percent reduction in the acidity of rainfall and snowmelt in the northeastern U.S. to protect lakes and forests. "Scientific uncertainty" was the official EPA explanation for the lack of federal response. Kathleen Bennett, EPA's air pollution control chief, stated that "Scientific uncertainties in the causes and effects of acid rain demand that we proceed cautiously and avoid premature action."

Buckets with automatic lids that shifted as the weather changed caught samples of precipitation for analysis. © Bruce Rodger
Buckets with automatic lids that shifted as the weather changed caught samples of precipitation for analysis.

© Bruce Rodger

In 1982, Bennett appeared at a Senate Energy Committee hearing and stated "There is no good measure of when acidity in rain should be considered detrimental "hence at this point; there is no clear reference for developing a remedial program." In 1984 the Reagan administration called for more research before regulation, even after the negative effects of acid rain were widely conceded and the National Academy of Sciences concluded that acid rain could be addressed effectively through sulfur dioxide emission reductions from coal-burning power plants in the eastern U.S.

Eventually EPA and the U.S. Congress did act, by including a comprehensive national program to reduce the emissions that cause acid rain in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Adopting a nationwide approach to address acid rain was a watershed event for air quality management in the U.S. For the first time, those responsible for emissions in upwind states that caused problems in downwind states were required to clean up the air we all share.

What worked well

Wisconsin's actions to address acid rain were based on research supported and conducted in-state. The undoing of the scientific approach on a national level did not hinder Wisconsin from addressing a serious environmental issue, even though we understood that our action alone would not entirely eliminate acid rain from falling in our lakes.

The members of the blue ribbon panel representing industry, ratepayers and the environment accepted the responsibility to develop recommendations to resolve the issues. These leaders showed a commitment to solving the problem. The Department of Natural Resources agreed to do the research that would answer questions; the panel agreed to let the science dictate what steps should be taken; and government financed the research through small payments from every residential energy user.

It's a model we can use to confront the difficult air quality problems we face today. When the acid rain debate was undertaken in Wisconsin and the rest of the nation, the issue of the long-range transport of air pollutants across state and national borders was just emerging. Now other serious pollution transport issues like mercury contamination, ground-level ozone and fine particulates, and the very large elephant in the room – "climate change" – must be tackled.

The questions we faced then apply to the issues we face now: Who is responsible? Who should bear the costs? What role should Wisconsin play in addressing regional, national and global air quality issues? Reflecting on what worked with acid rain years ago will help Wisconsin deal with the air quality issues we face now and in the future.

Jon Heinrich recently retired after 33 years with DNR's Air Management program. Heinrich supervised the development of many air quality programs, including efforts to contain ozone, sulfur dioxide, hazardous substances and mercury emissions.

Lasting benefits from the way
Wisconsin addressed acid rain
  • Dramatically reduced sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions while reducing rainfall acidity.

  • Increased the credibility of using Wisconsin-specific research to drive regulations.

  • Showed a willingness to invest in research to determine extent of air pollution problems.

  • Recognized that air pollution does not have borders and that local emissions contribute to regional air pollution.

  • Increased support for regional solutions to air quality problems.

  • Set clean-up targets, then provided flexibility to meet those goals.

  • Spurred interest in voluntary programs and "green" solutions by business partners.

  • Showed the benefits of convening a balanced panel of business, environmental and legislative leaders committed to resolving an environmental/health problem.

  • Fostered a partnership with weather service professionals on air quality and health reporting.

  • Brought together the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO) – Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan – to work together for over 27 years; and added Ohio to regional air quality efforts starting in 2004.

  • Proved the economic benefits of taking state action ahead of the federal government that allows us to tailor solutions to Wisconsin businesses and industries.
– Anne Bogar, DNR Air Management