GAO: EPA needs secondary standards to address acid rain - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

GAO: EPA needs secondary standards to address acid rain

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A new report released by the Government Accountability Office recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency take a look at EPA efforts to rein in those who emit mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

Two of the biggest sources of that pollutant are the conventional vehicles and coal-fired power plants. According to the GAO, "atmospheric deposition of NOx, SO2, and mercury contributes to the impairment of the nation's waters."

"To help ensure that EPA can address atmospheric deposition of NOx and SO2 impairing the nation's waters, we recommend that the EPA Administrator determine whether EPA can obtain in a timely manner the data it needs to establish secondary (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) adequate to protect against the effects of acid rain and, if not, identify alternative strategies to do so," the report recommends.

In a written response attached to the report, the EPA agreed with the findings of the GAO.

"The EPA accepts the GAO's recommendation," wrote Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator. "We are committed to protecting human health and the environment from the detrimental effects of atmospheric deposition, including the protection of our nation's waterways."

The full extent of atmospheric deposition of the chemical compounds is not known, the GAO reports.

"For example, states provide EPA with data on the extent to which their waterbodies do not meet water quality standards, and some states have reported that some of their waterbodies are polluted because of atmospheric deposition," the GAO wrote. "However, the states have not assessed all of their waterbodies and are not required to report on the sources of pollution."

Despite EPA efforts to work to reduce emissions through the Clean Air Act, the GAO wrote, the three pollutants examined continue to pollute the nation's waterways.

"EPA's recent attempt to address atmospheric deposition by establishing secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)—standards to protect public welfare—targeting the effects of acid rain caused by NOx and SO2 on water bodies was not successful," the GAO states. "EPA stated that uncertainty regarding atmospheric modeling and limitations in available data prevented determination of secondary NAAQS adequate to protect against the effects of acid rain, and the agency has not identified alternative strategies."

Currently the EPA is undergoing a five-year pilot program to gather scientific data on modeling atmospheric deposition of emissions. One problem the GAO points out is that there is not alternative plan if those scientific uncertainties can not be addressed.

The GAO also points out the EPA needs to do more to address the presence of nitrogen that is produced through natural processes.

The EPA can choose to address atmospheric deposition via either the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. The report also points out international sources of mercury in the U.S.

Both nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide contribute to acid rain, and nitrogen oxides can provide an overabundance of nutrients. Mercury can be absorbed by fish, which may then pass that mercury on to a human who consumes that fish.

"Exposure to mercury can affect neurological development, especially in children and developing fetuses, which are especially susceptible to mercury exposure," the report states. "Mercury exposure at high levels can also harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune systems of all ages."

One study reviewed by the GAO found that approximately 21,000 miles of streams in Central Appalachia experience levels of acid rain exceed ability to neutralize the acid.

"EPA has long recognized atmospheric deposition as a problem and has sought to mitigate its effects; however, EPA's efforts are being hindered by limitations in the regulatory tools available to it," the report states.

The report is posted at the GAO's website.