The Rain in Maine

Acid rain is one environmental issue that seemingly went the way of big hair, leg warmers and Michael J. Fox movies as the eighties came to a close. While losing that can of hair spray has proved to be a good idea, both fashionably and environmentally, acid rain is a concern that shouldn't go out of style.

Acid rain is no longer a widely publicized issue, but the problem has not disappeared. In fact, acid rain - and acid snow and dry acid particles - fall from the northeastern sky just as readily today as they did twenty years ago, posing the same potential threat to Maine's forests, fish, and even the structures that surround us.

For those of us who forgot about acid rain along with Michael Jackson's single glove, here's a refresher. Acid rain forms when pollution, like sulfur dioxide, from power plants, factories, and car exhaust reaches the clouds. In the atmosphere, these emissions undergo a chemical change that acidifies the rain falling back to earth.

In plain English, the rain soaking your gardens, tapping on your roof, and filling up the lakes and streams of Maine is about 10 to 100 times more acidic than it used to be.

While Maine has yet to see any truly devastating results of acid rain, telltale signs exist that Maine could see problems in the future. In Maine, poor forest health has been linked to soil acidification due to acid rain. Some forests in New York State and in Europe have actually stopped growing because acid rain has stripped away essential nutrients from their soils and killed some nutrient-producing microorganisms.

If acid rain worsens, it may acidify lakes and streams to the point where they no longer support most forms of aquatic life. Trout and bass may be among the first to die if our waters become more acidic.

If you aren't a fisherman, don't work for the paper or logging industries, and never hike, you don't have to worry about acid rain, right? Wrong! Acid rain damages the paint on houses and cars, leaving permanent spots on nice finishes. Over time, acid rain even eats away at statues, defacing irreplaceable monuments.

The government has taken some steps to correct the problem. The Clean Air Act of 1990 required power plants and factories to cut down sulfur dioxide emissions and today the levels of this pollutant have dropped significantly. Scientists had hoped that this reduction in emissions would make our rain less acidic. However, the rain in Maine has essentially stayed the same.

And we think we know why: the likely culprit is another type of pollutant, nitrogen oxides, which also contributes to acid rain. Car exhaust is a major source of nitrogen oxides, so all of us who drive or ride in cars are partially responsible.

Because some of the responsibility for the problem lies on an individual level, so can part of the solution. Keeping our cars running clean and using them less can help.

Maine and the other New England States are working together with the provincial governments of Canada to reverse the acid rain problem. Hopefully this international effort, coupled with a new focus on cars as a major contributor to the problem, will help preserve "the way life should be" in our state.

Liz Hawrylo

Maine DEP