The New York Times and Lies about 'Acid Rain'

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As one who often reads the Newspaper of the Ruling Class, the New York Times, I tend not to be surprised when the "Newspaper of Record" distorts the record. Furthermore, one could do nothing but write comments refuting the various economic fallacies and outright distortions that accompany each edition of the Grey Lady.

However, in a recent editorial, the NYT managed to distort the record so much that I find it hard even to know how to answer, except to say that some of us have not lost our memories of what happened 30 years ago. Entitled "Acid Rain 30 Years On," the editorial starts with the following statement:

Just over 30 years ago, a skeptical Daniel Patrick Moynihan persuaded his Senate colleagues to approve a major study to see whether a relatively unknown phenomenon called acid rain was worth worrying about. The study, completed in 1990, showed that pollution blowing eastward from coal-fired power plants was killing off aquatic life. One-quarter of the Adirondacks’ 3,000 lakes and streams had become too acidic to support fish life, or were headed that way.

Mr. Moynihan became a believer. And the study helped usher in two decades worth of laws and regulations — most important, the 1990 Clean Air Act — requiring major reductions in power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide. Evidence suggests that in the last decade pollution levels have dropped and that streams, lakes and forests have rebounded.

Actually not, and I think I know, given that I had a major article in Reason about this whole affair and also wrote part of my doctoral dissertation on the subject, and published another paper in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology about it. I can say what the NYT says in that editorial is categorically untrue, all the way to Moynihan’s becoming "a believer." If there is an Orwellian Memory Hole, it definitely lives at the "Newspaper of Record."

What actually happened regarding the "major study" and its results, and why were the results so controversial, with the EPA openly attempting to destroy the career of a scientist who had a major role in the report’s conclusions? In fact, why did the New York Times itself openly ignore the report that it now praises?

This goes back to the origins of the Acid Rain scare, which, like Global Warming (or "Climate Change") did not even need Al Gore to hype it. I wrote in my article in Reason:

(In the late 1970s) scientists in the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia became alarmed at what they believed was massive environmental degradation caused by sulfur dioxide-laced rain that came from coal-fired power plants. The media followed with hundreds of apocalyptic stories, such as “Scourge from the Skies” (Reader’s Digest), “Now, Even the Rain is Dangerous” (International Wildlife), “Acid from the Skies” (Time), and “Rain of Terror” (Field and Stream).

In 1980, the EPA declared that acid rain had acidified lakes in the northeastern United States a hundredfold since 1940, and the National Academy of Sciences predicted an “aquatic silent spring” by 1990, declaring in 1981 that the nation’s number of acid-dead lakes would more than double by 1990.

In response to these concerns, Congress in 1980 commissioned an interagency governmental study — NAPAP (National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project) — to document the damage acid rain was causing to lakes, rivers and streams, aquatic life, forests, crops, and buildings.

However, as scientists took measurements and assessed the streams, lakes and forests that supposedly were being ravaged by acid rain, they found out a number of things. First, lake and stream acidity had very little relationship to the pH factor of local rainfall. Instead, the acidity of the vegetation in the watersheds of these aquatic bodies was the significant factor, with the science firmly established by the time that Edward Krug and Charles Frink published a paper in a 1983 edition of Science. (More on that later.)

Second, as is the case with most environmental scares, so-called acid rain was not having much of an effect on anything, from what scientists could say. Unfortunately, Congress, the George H.W. Bush White House, and most of the mainstream media were not thrilled with the fact that the End Of The World As We Know It and let it be known that anything less than Apocalypse Now was unacceptable.

In writing about NAPAP’s 1987 Interim Report, I noted:

The assessment concluded that acid rain was not damaging forests, did not hurt crops, and caused no measurable health problems. The report also concluded that acid rain helped acidify only a fraction of Northeastern lakes and that the number of acid lakes had not increased since 1980. The assessment also agreed that acid rain hampered visibility in the eastern United States.

The report ignited a firestorm of protest. Rep. James Scheuer (D-NY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Agriculture Research, and the Environment, said the assessment was “intellectually dishonest” and badgered NAPAP witnesses before his committee. Environmentalists belittled the document because it came from the Reagan administration. They were especially angry at J. Lawrence Kulp, whom Reagan had appointed NAPAP director.

Scientists, however, generally endorsed the study. Documents from the International Conference on Acid Precipitation in 1988 show participants agreed with most of NAPAP’s conclusions almost unanimously. In fact, the scientists from Canada agreed with Krug on the important watershed acidification theory, which was partly at odds with the Interim Assessment. In other words, NAPAP’s conclusions were scientifically correct, if not politically correct.

The secondary reaction to the study by the government was indifference, in that the government could do nothing, and the eastern United States would not have been any worse off, environmentally speaking. However, because the NAPAP report was politically incorrect, the Bush administration (which took office in 1989) suppressed its findings — with no objection from the NYT or any other mainstream journalistic outfit — except for one, "60 Minutes."

On December 30, 1990 (after Congress passed the acid rain provisions in the Clean Air Act of 1990), "60 Minutes" broadcast a story that thoroughly debunked the scare stories, including a recent one by the "Newspaper of Record." Reporter Steve Kroft

…asked Krug about a then-recent New York Times story that claimed acid rain had turned forests in the Appalachia’s into “ragged landscapes of dead and dying trees.”

Krug replied, “I don’t know where they got that from. It appears to be another assertion, unsubstantiated…We do not see that occurring.”

One of the people interviewed by "60 Minutes" was none other than Moynihan, and he told Kroft that he was relieved by the results of the report. After all, he said, at the beginning of the scare, New Yorkers had been told that they would be losing "all of their lakes" and forests. The Apocalypse had not materialized, and Moynihan, while saying he would support the law, nonetheless was not a "believer" in the sense that the NYT characterized him 30 years later.

Not surprisingly, the EPA objected to the report and the NYT and most mainstream publications followed suit. Acid rain was destroying the country, and even if it was not, it still was, period. Instead, the newspapers either ignored the science or were used as conduits for the EPA to attack Krug and destroy the career of a promising scientist.

At the end, I wrote:

The EPA’s performance on acid rain — and how it dealt with a respected scientist who told the truth — is not comforting when one considers how important the federal government now is in funding scientific research and how politicized current environmental issues such as global warming and depletion of the earth’s ozone layer have become. One NAPAP scientist, who for obvious reasons wishes to remain anonymous, warns that in the future the EPA will not go through the pretense of research and debate: “There is no NAPAP for global warming.”

So, once again we see an editorial in the "Newspaper of Record" that outright distorts the record and ignores some good science. This is the same newspaper that claimed that the George W. Bush administration was "corrupting" science because it was not quick enough to join Gore’s Global Warming bandwagon.

In his excellent essay, "America’s Ruling Class," Angelo M. Codevilla writes regarding the modern "Progressives" and science that "identity always trumps" the truth. Indeed, in the case of acid rain, Codevilla’s assessment is on the mark. Americans were bullied by political elites and their amen media and academic corners into having new restrictions placed on their lives in order to deal with a non-existent threat. And it will happen again and again and again. But it will happen.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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