Counterpoint: Let’s really celebrate the 50th Earth Day with some humble pie

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April 22 marks the 50th Earth Day, born in the height of fears of the population bomb, global famine, miasmatic air and the rapid decline of the West into post-civilizational chaos.

How did that all work out? The dire predictions were wrong, but there is one lasting legacy: on Dec. 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was born. It was purposefully and politically recobbled from other parts of the federal bureaucracy by Richard Nixon into one central agency granted eternal life in Washington, D.C.

Failed predictions aside, there were some serious air quality problems, especially in urban airsheds; and the EPA along with the states did a pretty good job of cleaning things up. That was low-hanging fruit the agency could easily pick off.

A much larger, less manageable problem was acid rain. While rainfall is naturally a bit acidic, addition of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, mainly from the combustion of coal, clearly increase acidity. Air quality around coal-fired power plants was pretty bad, but local solutions resulted in multi-state problems. The mantra of those days was “the solution to pollution is dilution,” so power plant chimneys moved skyward. The clustering of generation facilities along major rivers like the Ohio, where they had easy access to coal, resulted in large regions of the East being subjected to increasingly acid precipitation, as the new plants injected sulfate aerosols high enough in the atmosphere to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles.

Acid rain became a regional problem, both in the eastern United States and Europe. Our power plants were forced to shift to low-sulfur coals and to capture the sulfates with scrubbers. Environmentalists and academics predicted horrible things would happen to extensive forests, but a comprehensive review published in 2004 in the journal Environmental Science and Policy concluded that “fortunately, the dramatic forest dieback feared by some scientists in the 1980s never materialized.”

Read the full article on the Frederick News Post.