ENVIRONMENTAL WATCH: Acid rain in East Texas?

By Glenn and Carolyn Brinkman

— East Texas is welcoming spring. The wild plum trees are blooming, the days are mild and sunny and, being naturally optimistic at heart, all of us look forward to the season unfolding as it should.
However, suppose that after this pleasant beginning, we begin to see large number of trees dying as they did last summer. Imagine extensive fish kills caused by high acidic water, and if you’re a rancher faced with getting your pastures and hay fields in shape for summer, get ready for sticker shock when you have to add more and more lime to your soil. Are these unpleasant scenarios the result of inevitable cycles of nature, or is it possible that human activity has upset the environmental balance?
We believe the culprit in this unfolding drama is acid rain. We are accustomed to thinking of acid rain as a phenomenon of the eastern United States or Canada, but we have the lethal ingredients and the result right here in East Texas.
Acid rain is a broad-based term used to describe several ways acid falls out of the atmosphere. A more precise term is acid deposition, which has two parts: wet and dry.
A quote from a bulletin produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, August 6, 2002: “Wet deposition refers to acidic rain, fog and snow. As this acidic water flows over and through the ground, it affects a variety of plants and animals. The strength of the effects depend on many factors, including how acidic the water is, the chemistry and buffering capacity of the soils involved and the types of fish, trees, and other living things that rely on water. Dry deposition refers to acidic gases and particles.
About half of the acidity in the atmosphere falls back to earth through dry deposition. The wind blows these acidic particles and gases onto buildings, cars, homes and trees. Dry deposited gases and particles can also be washed from trees and other surfaces by rainstorms. When that happens, the runoff water adds those acids to the acid rain, making the combination more acidic than the falling rain alone.”
A precarious balance exists in East Texas. We have naturally occurring, highly acidic soil, but what happens when acid rain tips the balance? To better understand the problem one needs a basic understanding of the measurement of alkalinity and acidity. The term “pH” refers to the free hydrogen ions (electrically charged atoms) in water and is measured on a scale 0 to 14. Seven (7) is considered neutral and measurements below seven are acidic while those above are alkaline. Every point on the pH scale represents a tenfold increase over the previous number.
Below a pH of 4.5, all fish die. The East Texas Farm News in its March 1 issue carries a story of rain bringing a large fish kill in East Texas. After the recent January rain raised water levels, the pH dropped to 4.4. Why? Remember the dry deposition of gases and particles washed from trees and other surfaces by rainstorms?
In most cases acid rain comes from two kinds of air pollutants — sulfur dioxide (S02) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).
Sulfur dioxide is emitted mainly from electric power plants that rely on burning fossil fuel — mostly coal. Coal plants also emit nitrogen oxide (NOx) as do vehicles. Big Brown, the coal-fired power plant which has operated near Fairfield for 36 years is the No. 1 polluting plant in Texas for SO2. In 2005, Big Brown 1 and 2 emitted over 90,000 tons of SO2. For 36 years we have been accumulating acid rain (thanks to over 3 million tons of SO2 from Big Brown if the rate of emission was 90,000 tons per year) in our soil and water and that result has gradually impacted all of us in East Texas.
There is technology available which can substantially reduce SO2 pollution. Wet scrubbers use liquid to trap particles and gases in the exhaust stream to reduce SO2 by 90 percent to 95 percent, and dry scrubbers reduce SO2 in the range of 50 percent to 90 percent. Big Brown did not utilize this technology and had no plans to install scrubbers.
The prospective new owners of TXU promise to be more environmentally sensitive. Before the buyout, TXU did not plan scrubbers for Big Brown 1 and 2. Let us hope that the new owners are committed to cleaning up their existing facilities.
Glenn and Carolyn Brinkman are Athens residents and charter members of the East Texas Environmental Concerns Organization.

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