Acid Skies : California's Weapons Against Harsh Peril: Study and Debate

Associated Press

Acid pollution sometimes as harsh as toilet bowl cleaner is mixing with California's coastal fog, valley dust and mountain snows, threatening to tarnish the Golden State while politicians debate whether to clamp new controls on the airborne corrosives.

"Acid deposition in California may have significant adverse effects on the environment, on the economy and on human health," according to the state Air Resources Board's most recent report on the subject.

Many California coastal areas are frequently exposed to fog and clouds with acidity equal to lime juice, slightly stronger than vinegar and 1,000 times more acidic than clean rain.

The most intense acid pollution ever measured in the United States was detected on Southern California's coast--acid fog that was as strong as toilet bowl cleaner, nearly as strong as the 1952 London fog blamed for 4,000 deaths and 10,000 times more acidic than unpolluted rain.

In northern Europe and eastern North America, acid rain has been blamed for rendering lakes and streams lifeless and is suspected of damaging forests.

Such damage has yet to result from California's acid rain, dust, fog and snow. And the ARB says the amount of acid deposited on California's urban areas may be only 50% to 60% of the amount that rains on eastern U.S. cities.

Dry Acid

But California's airborne acidity actually may be harsher than in eastern air. And in the state's arid cities, up to 90% of the acid may be in the form of dry dust or gas, which can be inhaled, unlike the acid rain that accounts for half the East's acid pollution.

"People are breathing acidic droplets in Los Angeles and other parts of the state every day," said John R. Holmes, the board's research director. "This represents a potential threat to human health, particularly when you're breathing acidity along with ozone and other pollutants.

"The most sensitive resources we have to protect--lakes, streams, forests and soils in places like the Sierra Nevada--are not being affected yet," Holmes added. "What we're trying to do is figure out just what level of acid deposition is acceptable."

So from laboratories in San Francisco and Irvine to lakes perched in the Sierra, board-sponsored researchers are conducting dozens of studies to monitor acid in California skies and learn if it threatens the state's environment, farms, buildings and the health of its citizens.

Created by the Legislature in 1982, the $18-million, six-year research program is widely praised as being world-class.

"Virtually all other states depend on the federal government and private institutions" to finance acid rain research, said Dr. Robert Frank, an acid rain scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "California is doing it on its own. The quality of its research program is quite high and compares favorably with research supported by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency."

The original program expires in December, 1988. The Legislature recently approved five-year, $24-million extension legislation that would have allowed the ARB to impose controls aimed specifically at acid pollutants when and if such rules can be scientifically justified.

Environmentalists and industrialists publicly supported the bill. But it was vetoed in September by cost-conscious Gov. George Deukmejian, who said it would be "premature to extend this study for another five years before the results of the first six years are produced and analyzed."

Acid pollution is loosely referred to as acid rain, but occurs in several wet forms, including rain, fog, snow, dew, mist, sleet, hail, dry gas and dust particles.

It forms from nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides emitted by fossil fuel combustion in vehicles, industrial boilers, smelters, coal-burning and other electric power plants, and by oil extraction and refinery operations. The oxides react in the atmosphere to produce nitric and sulfuric acids. The same oxides help form photochemical smog and visibility-reducing particulates.

Acidity is measured on a scale called pH, which ranges from 0 to 14. A substance is acid if its pH is below 7, neutral at pH 7 and alkaline at pHs above 7. Unpolluted rainwater, at pH 5.6, is slightly acidic. Anything much lower is considered acid rain.

Environmentalists and some scientists say that to prevent serious acid pollution damage in California, cleanup must start before research into possible hazards is complete. They say Deukmejian's veto will further delay adequate cleanup, although existing air pollution regulations will reduce acid pollutants to some extent.

"The key thing for California is not, 'Are the fish dying?' because fish dying means you've lost the battle," said Sierra Club lobbyist John White.

Other scientists and industry officials say there's no rush to impose costly new pollution controls.

"The issue of environmental damage still really is an open question" in the West, said chemist George Hidy, a vice president of the utility-financed Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto.

"We're really not in a panic," said Peter K. Mueller, the institute's manager of air quality studies. If acid pollutants "are not creating an obvious problem, then just writing an arbitrary regulation doesn't solve the problem."

Among state lawmakers, "there is a sense of impatience about the research and wanting to get enough answers to proceed with some sort of control program" to reduce acid pollution, said Mary Shallenberger, principal consultant to California's Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee. "But we have every reason to believe it is good, fine research and we just need more."

Holmes said studies so far show California's rain is most acidic in Southern California: the Los Angeles Basin--including the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys and the San Bernardino-Riverside region--and Santa Barbara. Readings near San Diego are lower.

Rain also is quite acidic in the San Joaquin Valley and around San Francisco, with Berkeley, San Jose and San Rafael having some of the highest Bay Area readings. But levels there are much lower than in Los Angeles, Holmes said.

Acid fog is strongest in coastal areas of the Los Angeles Basin and to the north in Santa Barbara, which gets it from offshore oil operations and smog blown up from Los Angeles. Acid also appears sporadically in fog in the western San Joaquin Valley.

Often cloudy or foggy areas of the San Gabriel, Santa Monica and Santa Ynez mountains are "essentially bathed in pH 2.6 water--which is acidic as lime juice," said environmental engineering scientist Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology.

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