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Rush to Judgment

Does Illinois export acid rain?

Illinois Times

March 22, 1984

The dispute about whether and to what extent Illinois contributed to acidic precipitation in the Northeast U.S. and Canada was heated. Illinois’s attempts to protect the quality of its own air by injecting power plant emissions into upper air layers using taller smokestacks moved pollution but not remove it.

I have here clarified a couple of points left unclear in the rush to get the original into print.


Politicians often rush in where scientists fear to tread. Unlike the scientists,' the politicians' propositions need not be proven, only plausible. No controversy better illustrates the point than acid rain. The distance between the statements, "Power plants cause acid rain" and "Emissions from the Kincaid station at Pawnee cause acid rain on Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks," is the distance between the stump and the lab.


Acid rain is a campaign packager's dream—a punchy phrase, the right villains, and a phenomenon complex enough that the average voter won't recognize a half-truth when he hears it, provided it's spoken with conviction. Best of all it's a cause which appeals to the bourgeois environmentalist constituency. A Dartmouth biologist spoke to an acid rain conference at the University of Illinois last fall, and suggested delicately that acid rain would not be the burning issue it has become in the Northeast were it not for trout fisherman aggrieved at the loss of their idylls on the stream away from the hurly burly of the office. (It's interesting to speculate how the acid rain issue would have evolved had the finger of evidence pointed to camp stoves in New Hampshire rather than power plants in Ohio.) Few Illinois coal miners are likely to have read William Tucker's 1982 book, Progress and Privilege. But most of them would endorse his view of environmentalism as a campaign to preserve wilderness as a playground for the well-off. Trout fishermen are a vested interest just as coal and utility companies are, albeit with rather better manners.


That sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants are a major source of acidic precipitation falling in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada is not disputed. Nor is the fact that acid rain is bad for some living things. Much of the rest is inference, not evidence. Take the crucial issue of pollutant transport. Taylor Pensoneau of the Illinois Coal Association puts the industry's view like this: "This fight—and it is a fight—is being fought on two battlegrounds, political and scientific. On the scientific front, for the first time we're getting in-depth research. Proponents of acid rain controls in the Midwest, we feel, grossly underestimated the effect of local emissions right there in New England."


Did they? In a position statement released last month, the Illinois Acid Rain Task Force, a coalition of seven state and local groups with environmental interests, took issue with the coal industry's "scare tactics." The task force stated, "The long-range transport of sulfates is the dominant source of deposition over much of the eastern U.S."


But what is long-range? To date, the most prestigious opinion expressed on the point is that of the National Academy of Sciences, which released its own exhaustive review of the acid rain evidence last summer. The NAS confirmed a link between acid rain in the Northeast and sulfur emissions from power plants. But whose power plants? Michael Witte is the director of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources. Witte notes the NAS conclusion that cause-effect relationships could be reliably drawn between emission sources and receptor sites across distances of 300–600 kilometers—roughly 190 to 380 miles. In round figures, the distance from Illinois to Whiteface Mountain is twice that. "All they say is that every once in a while, emissions from Illinois have some effect at a distance of 1,000 kilometers," Witte explains, "but those effects are intermittent and vary with conditions."


A certain regrettable imprecision is inevitable when any issue as complex as acid rain enters public debate. In an earlier report, the NAS concluded that acidic precipitation in ecologically sensitive areas such as the Northeast would have to be cut by at least 50 percent to significantly reduce the risks of damage. However, what goes up doesn't necessarily come down. The NAS insisted that uncertainties about the chemical and physical interactions in the atmosphere made it impossible to state by what percentage acid-causing emissions would have to be reduced to achieve the hoped-for 50 percent reduction in acid precipitation downwind. The environmentalists' Illinois Acid Rain Task Force nevertheless insists, "Achieving this goal means cutting sulfur dioxide emissions in half." But the equation cannot yet be made between cutting acid rain in half and cutting Midwest emissions in half.


Even the most basic questions about the acid rain problem still await answers, at least in the opinion of some respected researchers. Prior to the 1970s, for example, rainfall samples had been gathered only twice in the U.S.—a single year's data collected from roughly half the lower forty-eight states in the mid-1950s, and again for several years in the mid-1960s. It was from this data, in 1976, that researchers from Cornell detected a trend toward increased acidity in the rain and snow of the eastern U.S.

Richard Semonin is not so sure. Semonin is a meteorologist who has served on several major scientific panels on acid rain. He is also assistant chief of the Illinois State Water Survey in Urbana, at whose labs are analyzed the rainfall samples collected as part of the present national acid-rain monitoring program. Semonin has described the data from the sporadic samplings in the '50s and '60s as "questionable" because of differences in sampling techniques and monitoring sites.


Speaking at the U of I last fall, Semonin noted that pH readings (the pH scale is used to measured acidity and alkalinity of substances) can vary considerably even within small geographic areas. Sampling techniques can affect data too. Sampling has been done by many different agencies, often using different procedures and equipment.


More crucial is the complex nature of pH itself. In an attempt to confirm the trend toward increased acidity since the '50s, Semonin and his colleagues compared their own Illinois samples from 1960 and 1977 to the key mid-'50s data. Like many other researchers, they found that acidity had increased, especially between 1954 and 1960.


However, re-analysis showed that the concentrations of acids in the samples had not increased markedly. What was found were higher concentrations of alkalines. By buffering the acids, the alkalines caused the resulting pH reading to be atypically alkaline, with the further result that samples from subsequent years, whose balances of acids and alkalines were more typical, seemed more acidic by comparison. Semonin speculates that the samples from the '50s were contaminated in the field by alkaline dust blown about during the drought that afflicted the nation's midsection during much of that decade. Rainfall in the '60s and '70s was not more acidic than usual, he suggests. Rather, rainfall in the '50s was less acidic than usual.


Adjusting the '50s data nationwide for normal concentrations of alkaline dust, Semonin found, resulted in changes in precipitation acidity much more subtle and geographically more diffuse than has been generally believed. A recent survey of surface water data by the U.S. Geological Survey tends to confirm that finding, Semonin says. The USGS concluded that increased acidity in the Northeast happened prior to the 1950s and has stabilized since the 1960s (although it seems to be increasing in other parts of the country). The trend toward acid rain may not be much of a trend after all. Are environmentalists arguing for controls that aren't needed? Maybe, but the point remains unproven, at least insofar as controls would apply in Illinois.


Acid rain is not the first environmental "crisis" in which political pressure forced experts into the practice of what some have called "anticipatory science." One thinks of the ozone panic, or the mandatory chlorination of sewage effluent which may be a graver threat to human health than the bacteria it was installed to kill.


In the past, the costs of such caution were modest. In the case of acid rain the costs could be anything but modest. Gov. Thompson has joined the Reagan administration and the coal and utility industries in a call for more research. The fact that there is as much convenience as conscience in the appeal should make the rest of us suspicious of their motives, to be sure. But it should make us suspicious of ours, too. More research is a way to delay the imposition of needed controls, but it is also a way to avoid imposition of the wrong controls, or controls that are more expensive than they need to be. No one can make sense of the acid rain issue unless he is willing to consider that many environmentalists are willing to be wrong for the right reasons—or that corporation presidents can sometimes be right for the wrong ones. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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