Rear Mirror: The EPA vs. Ed Krug over the Acid Rain Scare
by William Anderson
Published in Reason Magazine, January 1992
|Although unpolluted by acid rain,
this clearwater stream in Australia
is highly acidic.
Some people don’t like what Edward Krug has to say about acid rain. That was apparent when he spoke at a seminar on the subject last April in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Krug, a soil scientist who had helped conduct a 10-year federal study of acid rain, spoke with some expertise. He told his audience that he and his fellow researchers on the National Acid Rain Precipitation Assessment Project had determined that acid rain was an environmental nuisance, not a catastrophe.
It was a message that environmentalists didn’t want to hear. One woman hissed at him, “You need to take a reality check.”
Unfortunately for Krug, she isn’t the only one who doesn’t like his ideas. Congress ignored NAPAP’s findings, and when Krug tried to point out that the federal government is forcing utilities to spend billions of dollars to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, a federal agency did everything in its power to keep the media from listening to him. Krug’s research has upset the plans of some of Washington’s most powerful bureaucrats, and they aren’t happy. Because of them, the 44-year-old Krug has experienced numerous reality checks.
Krug is respected in his field. His mentor, John Tedrow, a world-renowned soil scientist at Rutgers University, says that Krug borders “on genius.” Krug has developed an internationally accepted theory on lake acidity. He has published in prestigious scientific journals. He organized the Acid Rain Symposium at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has served as an adviser to two directors of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But today, because of politics, he cannot find work in his field.
After Krug appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about what his research for NAPAP revealed about the relationship between acid rain and acidic lakes, the EPA branded him a scientist of “limited credibility,” called his statements “outlandish,” and said he was “on the fringes of environmental science.” The Agency, under pressure, later recanted those accusations.
After he published an internationally praised acid-rain assessment, the EPA organized a scathing secret review that other scientists called a “sham.” The producer of the 60 Minutes broadcast says the EPA attempted to discredit Krug while CBS was preparing the story. The EPA denied the charges.
Why did this happen? “He was,” a colleague says, “a bit immature in the area of political science.”
During the late 1980s, acid rain was a hot topic. Environmentalists said that it was an ecological catastrophe. George Bush made an acid-rain policy an important part of his kinder, gentler agenda. Together, the president and environmentalists helped push through Congress the Clean Air Act of 1990, the most sweeping regulatory law in history. Some important people had their reputations staked on this legislation, and they didn’t need Ed Krug telling taxpayers acid rain is no big deal.
Krug’s problems began, in a sense, 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–to document the damage acid rain was causing to lakes, rivers and streams, aquatic life, forests, crops, and buildings.
Krug came to NAPAP in 1981 while working with the Connecticut State Agricultural Experiment Station. As a soil scientist, he was to examine the effects of acid rain on soils, lakes, and streams. Like most of his colleagues, he believed that his experiments would document that acidic precipitation was doing real damage to the environment.
The popular theory among acid-rain scientists in 1981 was the mineral titration theory, which said that acidic soils, which are common in many regions of the country, have little buffering capacity against acid rain. In other words, soils that are acidic because of organic matter cannot absorb and neutralize acid rain as do alkaline (or lime-bearing) soils.
Because much of the soil in the Northeast and eastern Canada is acidic, many scientists simply assumed that acid rain ran off directly into streams and lakes and made them acidic. Unless acid rain was stopped, the problem would intensify and more and more lakes and streams would become unfit for fish and other aquatic life.
The theory seemed convincing when one realized that many Adirondack lakes that are now dead had held plenty of trout and other fish at the turn of the century. As coal-burning utility plants sprang up, spewing sulfur dioxide into the air, scientists thought, acid rain had slowly choked these lakes to death.
These scientists held that Adirondacks lakes such as Woods Lake were acidic because of acid rain. Samples of its surface water found the lake to have a pH factor of 5.0, which is too acidic to support fish and other life. But scientific models based on the mineral titration theory predict that eliminating half of the acidity of rain could raise the pH level to a more-neutral and life-supporting 6.0 over the next 50 years.
Advocates of drastic reduction of acid rain also held that the sulfur dioxide in precipitation was destroying U.S. forests. The acid, they claimed, stripped the soil of necessary nutrients, damaged the forest canopy, and leached into water tables metals found naturally in the soil.
These latter claims were refuted early on by NAPAP research. Scientists found no evidence of damage to forests (with the exception of less than 0.1 percent of the red spruces found in the Southern Appalachian highlands). Nor did they find that it was causing soil minerals to leach into the water table. And in those forests that were dying, scientists found that insects and various plant diseases were causing the damage. Indeed, there was some evidence that acid rain acts as a mild fertilizer.
But Krug’s research went even farther, raising disturbing questions about what were then accepted scientific theories. Specifically, Krug began to question whether acid rain even contributed to lake and stream acidity at all.
At that time, much of the scientific community, holding to the mineral titration theory, believed that lakes and streams that were located in watersheds dominated by acid soils would only increase in acidity if acid rain fell on them. In 1983, however, Krug published an article in the prestigious journal Science that showed that acid rain might have almost nothing to do with acid lakes.
The article, co-authored by Charles R. Frink, was entitled “Acid Rain on Acid Soil: A New Perspective.” It was the only invited article by a NAPAP scientist to be published in Science, and it was very controversial, not just because it challenged scientific theories, but also because of its implications for U.S. policy makers.
The article examined acidic soil in watersheds and challenged the belief that landscapes “act merely as net sinks for acid rain.” Krug and Frink looked at historical land-use patterns in the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia and concluded that existing soil chemistry was as important or more important to the pH of a lake or stream as acid rain. To perhaps oversimplify, it is acid in the surrounding plants and soil, not that in the rain, that causes acid lakes.
|SOME IMPORTANT PEOPLE STAKED THEIR REPUTATIONS ON THE CLEAN AIR ACT.
THEY DIDN’T NEED KRUG TELLING TAXPAYERS ACID RAIN IS NO BIG DEAL.
Krug and Frink noted that acidity in lakes and streams had positive correlations with land use, a point verified by the EPA in 1989. Core samples taken from the bottom of many Adirondack lakes show increased acidity in the recent past but also show they were acidic and fishless before European settlement. Krug noted in his article “Fish Story,” published in Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, that the translation of the Iroquois word adirondack is “bark eater,” and history has shown that many of these lakes and watersheds failed to provide fish and game for the Indians.
Trout survived better in the Adirondacks around the turn of the century than in earlier times because of extensive slash-and-burn logging of that area. Eliminating the acid vegetation caused the soil to become more alkaline (a high pH), reducing the acid flowing into lakes and streams. In turn, the lakes became more hospitable to fish. After “forever wild” legislation stopped the logging in 1915, the watersheds reverted to acid soils and vegetation, and the lakes became acidic again.
Krug also found that Florida, not the Northeast, has the largest number of acidic lakes, despite the fact that its rainfall is much less acidic than rain in the Northeast. He also studied lakes in Australia and New Zealand that had a pH well below 5.0 despite the fact that acid rain did not fall in their watersheds. Acid soils and vegetation caused lake acidity, Krug found. On the other hand, the Ohio Valley, which has the nation’s most acidic rain, has no acid lakes or streams.
In their summary, Krug and Frink wrote, “Thus, the interactions of acid rain, acid soil, and vegetation need to be carefully examined on a watershed basis in assessing benefits expected from proposed reductions in emissions of oxides of sulfur and nitrogen.
In other words, they implied that drastically cutting back emissions from coal-fired plants might not have any significant effect on lake acidity. For example, Woods Lake, even hundreds of years ago when “pure” rain fell in its watershed, was very acidic. Thus, the mineral titration model’s prediction that reducing acid rain would cut the acidity in Adirondacks lakes was wrong. The generally accepted theory, while seemingly impressive, violated a basic rule of science: It could not make an accurate prediction.
Krug’s findings were significant because they seemed to refute what would become the basis for acid-rain legislation. They also set him apart from many other scientists in NAPAP, some of whom believed in mineral titration and some of whom simply did not wish to offend the EPA, the lead agency in NAPAP.
But the cause of acidic lakes was one of the few areas of controversy within the NAPAP scientific community. Most of the studies either refuted or seriously questioned nearly every apocalyptic claim made by environmentalists in the government, and when NAPAP released its Interim Report in 1987, many in Congress and the media were not ready for its message.
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.
When James Mahoney became NAPAP director in 1988, he assured Scheuer’s subcommittee that he “would not subscribe…at this time” to the view that acid rain would not harm any more Northeastern lakes. Three years later, he would subscribe to that position on 60 Minutes.
NAPAP was ready to release a final findings document in 1989. Under congressional mandate, the document was supposed to guide priorities for the Clean Air Act. But the EPA, now led by Bush appointee and zealous environmentalist William Reilly, refused to approve it. After much revision, the EPA finally allowed the document to be released on July 27, 1990–long after Bush, who in his 1988 presidential campaign had promised to be the “environmental president,” signed the new law.
The Findings Document differed little from the Interim Assessment. An exhaustive, worldwide scientific search said acid rain was an environmental nuisance, not a crisis. The much-feared “silent spring” had not arrived.
After authorizing nearly $600 million for the NAPAP study, Congress refused to hear the good news. One committee met to examine the results, but only Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) appeared at the public hearing.
By the time the findings were released, Krug was out of favor with the EPA and out of NAPAP. His research only compounded the government’s political problems, and no one in the EPA, Congress, or the national media wanted to listen to him, even though his theories had by 1990 become the scientific consensus.
While Krug’s studies have gained worldwide recognition, they may also have robbed him of his livelihood. Gary Stensland, a NAPAP scientist for the Illinois State Water Survey who worked with Krug on many projects, notes, “Ed had a big effect on NAPAP. They did a lot of research on things that he said should be looked at. They [NAPAP] often didn’t give him credit.” Krug, he says, “has not benefited professionally” from his discoveries.
Krug’s work gained him an entry in Who’s Who in Science and Engineering for 1991. His Science article is the third most-cited in scientific literature on acid rain. But since that article was published, Krug has been unable to obtain research grants. “You would think that the agency [EPA] would have solicited him,” says Stensland. “It sure looks peculiar.”
The EPA funds most soil research, and after 1983, that agency wanted nothing to do with Krug. Krug sought–but did not receive–competitive grants. The EPA did not approach him for research even though scientists with lesser qualifications received funding.
While Krug was working for the Illinois State Water Survey in 1986, the EPA gave a grant for soil research to a team at the University of Illinois. “These scientist did not have my qualifications,” Krug says, “and I really knew things were bad when they came to me and asked me to show them how to do the chemical analysis.”
In 1985, the EPA advertised for a soil scientist at its Corvalis, Oregon, station. Krug applied. After he scored 99 out of 100 in the civil service exam, the EPA suddenly informed him that the position had been canceled. “They later advertised for an ecologist,” Krug recalls.
The U.S. Department of Energy, however, gave him a grant to publish a lengthy assessment of acid-rain theories. The assessment went through peer review and was widely praised upon its publication in 1989. Erik Eriksson of Sweden, considered to be the father of acid-rain theories, sent DOE an unsolicited letter commending Krug’s report as “most welcome for sifting evidence from the sea of loose speculations often found.”
But the EPA, which was responsible for many of those “loose speculations,” secretly organized a “review” of its own. Unlike the accepted scientific practice in which reviewers of differing opinions study the prospective manuscript, the EPA chose only those scientists who disagreed with Krug’s organic acids theory.
Keith Eshleman, a proponent of the mineral titration theory, lambasted Krug’s work in a summary of the reviews, calling it “highly misleading and oversimplified” and “theoretically implausible and inconsistent with empirical observations.” Since the article had already been peer-reviewed and published, the secret reviews seemed to have no purpose.
But the purpose may have been revealed after Krug’s December 30, 1990, appearance on 60 Minutes. In that broadcast, reporter Steve Kroft said the EPA and Congress had ignored NAPAP’s findings and forced costly and unnecessary acid-rain provisions into the Clean Air Act.
Krug and then-NAPAP director Mahoney explained and defended the project’s conclusions. Both argued that acid rain is not a crisis.
Kroft seemed to agree, saying that environmentalists’ claims that acid rain is an ecological catastrophe are “overblown.” On acid lakes, Kroft repeated NAPAP’s belief that acid rain contributes to acidity of only “about 2 percent of the surface water in the Adirondacks.”
Mahoney then added, “Interestingly, the percentage of acidic lakes and streams is highest in the nation in Florida, by quite a bit. We know that the causation in many of these is natural. It has nothing to do with acid rain.”
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.”
Kroft also interviewed David Hawkins, a former EPA administrator who is now with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Hawkins simply dismissed the NAPAP study as irrelevant, stressing that the NRDC had always ignored NAPAP and had concentrated, instead, on policy making based upon the assumption that acid rain was an environmental disaster. “The environmental community has spent almost no effort attempting to even monitor the progress [of NAPAP]….We have been working on trying to get legislation in Washington.”
A. Alan Moghissi, a former scientist with the EPA, says that Hawkins paid little attention to scientific research while he was with the government. “My experience with EPA…indicated strong disagreement between Hawkins and the scientists within EPA,” wrote Moghissi in a letter to Krug.
The EPA objected to Krug’s appearance even before CBS aired the story. (Before 60 Minutes would use Krug, CBS producer Jeff Fager contacted numerous NAPAP scientists, who confirmed Krug’s qualifications.) After the broadcast, the EPA reacted angrily.
Five days after the pieces aired, William G. Rosenberg, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, sent a scathing letter to Don Hewitt for a story that “was full of half truths…and unfounded allegations,” the letter, which Rosenberg had signed, turned on Krug.
“It is distressing to note,” it said, “that you did not allow anyone in the Administration to respond to the outlandish statements made by Dr. Krug and [journalist] Mr. [Warren] Brookes, who are on the fringes of environmental science and policy making.”
In the meantime, Rosenberg ordered his aides to prepare a response, which the EPA released on January 10, 1991. The document, which consisted of statements made in the story followed by the EPA view, was sent on request to interested parties. Said the response, “It is unfortunate that CBS chose Dr. Krug as its only scientific expert on acid rain, because Dr. Krug has limited scientific credibility even in the limited area of surface water acidification.” On the next page, the EPA document gave selected damning quotes from the secret review, presenting them as the views of unnamed “eminent” scientists.
Environmental publications and the mainstream press soon had copies of Rosenberg’s letter and the EPA response. The Washington Post printed a story on January 14, 1991, that told of Krug’s “limited credibility.” The same allegations appeared in other publications, such as The Environmental Writer and Environmental Forum.
But others saw through the EPA’s strategy. For these publications, the agency’s campaign against Krug became a story. World, a small Christian news magazine, broke the story in its April 20, 1991 issue. Warren Brookes followed with a May 1 column, “Scientific McCarthyism at the EPA?”
The EPA’s actions then changed from vindictive to bizarre. After Brookes contacted the EPA, Rosenberg wrote a letter on April 28 and sent it to Krug that night by Federal Express. In his letter, Rosenberg explained he “did not intend to reflect upon your professional stature.” He further wrote, “while you have differing views on the issue, we did not intend to question your reputation as a scientist and we regret and apologize that the words used may have given that impression.”
Rosenberg’s spokesman, David Cohen, now says that Rosenberg was unaware of the contents of both the response and the letter as they related to Krug, even though he signed the letter. Asked if Rosenberg signed something he had not read, Cohen replies, “He did not read it carefully.” As for the response document, Cohen says, “It was unfortunate.” Rosenberg, he says, reprimanded the preparers.
REASON spoke with Cohen several times. In the first interview, Cohen insisted that it was an “unfortunate incident” and that the EPA and Rosenberg meant Krug no harm. But he also suggested that Krug was simply a minor player who overreacted to criticism.
“My guess is that had the scientist in question never cried foul,” Cohen said, “I’m not sure any attention would have been drawn to it.” He added, “It [the EPA] doesn’t try to besmirch anyone’s credentials.”
“What’s the percentage in it for us?” he asked. “And as for the particular scientist, as far as I can tell–and I don’t mean to commit the sin all over again and demean him–[he] was not pivotal to the acid rain debate.”
In later interviews, however, Cohen spoke differently of Krug and emphasized that the official EPA view was that Krug was a good scientist and that the incident should not have happened. “We respect Ed Krug as a scientist,” Cohen says emphatically. “We simply disagreed with his scientific conclusions.”
But a newsletter that covers the EPA closely tells a different story about Rosenberg’s involvement in preparing an EPA response to the broadcast. The January 8 edition of Inside EPA says, “The show prompted…Rosenberg to dash off a harsh and lengthy letter to Don Hewitt.” The article quotes the letter at length and also quotes the January 10 EPA response. Krug’s attorney, Michael McDonald, says that according to the EPA’s legal counsel, both Rosenberg and EPA Administrator William Reilly approved the documents in question. Rosenberg “was not acting alone,” says McDonald.
But Cohen now claims that Rosenberg was unaware of the negative references to Krug, even after those remarks had appeared in The Washington Post and other publications. “When he found the reference [to Krug],” Cohen adds, “Rosenberg shot off an apology to the scientist who claimed the reference was hurting him. As soon as it was brought to our attention, that package [the document] was never sent out again.”
Cohen emphasized that the EPA “has nothing but respect for Dr. Krug.” Krug, however, doesn’t buy the Agency’s story and has demanded that the EPA admit wrongdoing in a letter of apology, give a letter of reprimand to all EPA personnel involved in the sham review, and “signal the scientific community that it s safe to work with me.” To date, the EPA has not responded to Krug’s demands.
The truth is that Krug embarrassed the agency. Last May, Reilly told members of the Joint Chairs Council, an organization that oversees NAPAP, that the Clean Air Act is “the environmental flagship of this administration.” He added, “We will do nothing to embarrass it.” They won’t do anything to “embarrass” the act because cost/benefit provisions written into the law could force its repeal if it is found not to be cost effective.
Even though Congress ignored Krug’s work on acid rain, it has not ignored how he was treated by the EPA. The General Accounting Office, Congress’s investigative arm, has begun a probe of the affair. While GAO investigators will not reveal who ordered the probe, sources close to the investigation say it was Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
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.”
William Anderson teaches economics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and at Covenant College.
SPPI Note: see also: