The Issues: Acid Rain

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CBS News continues an election-year series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews compares the Bush and Kerry positions on reducing acid rain.

In the New York Adirondacks, a place so peaceful, in a wilderness so beautiful, you'd never suspect the damage beneath the surface.

Just looking at the water, it looks pristine.

"That's because there is no life in it," says Brian Houseal of the Adirondack Council. "Of 2,800 lakes in the Adirondacks, one quarter of them are biologically dead."

Environmentalist Houseal says lakes and forests are dying here in the Adirondacks because hundreds of miles away, coal-fired power plants in the Midwest are spewing pollutants that drift to upstate New York as acid rain.

"New York State is geographically disadvantaged," says Neil Woodworth of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Some days, Woodworth says you can watch the pollution roll in through the mountain passes.

"The air in these mountains can be as unhealthy as air in some of our cities," Woodworth says.

Woodworth and Houseal both manage Adirondack environmental groups. Both agree on the goal: to clean up the air and water – fast. But they disagree on how to do it.

In the presidential campaign, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry promise sharp reductions in acid rain. Both say the key is to push industry to burn coal cleaner by using high technology equipment. So the issue is: which candidate would really get the job done?

"I proposed to the United States Congress a Clear Skies initiative to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70 percent," said Mr. Bush in the second presidential debate on Oct. 8.

The president says he will reduce pollution by allowing power companies to trade "pollution credits," essentially selling each other the right to pollute.

Houseal says, "I like the president's approach." He says that under the Bush plan the market will make pollution so expensive that companies will be forced to clean up.

"If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner than it is if you pass the Clear Skies Act," said Kerry in the same debate. "We're going backwards."

Kerry claims he'll reverse what he calls the Bush-Cheney rollbacks using the courts. Woodworth believes that will force the clean up.

"We feel that if we simply enforce the Clean Air Act as it's currently written and enforce it rigorously, we would not have an acid deposition problem and we would not have a smog problem," says Woodworth.

Notice neither candidate proposes using less coal. They can't – not with oil so expensive and not when the coal states of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania could decide the election.