Ronald Reagan is batting zero with the environmentalists this week.
His off-the-cuff statements portraying trees as a major cause of haze and suggesting air pollution is substantially under control brought these responses: 'irresponsible,' 'preposterous' and 'just plain wrong.'
The Republican presidential candidate, in remarks Tuesday night to steel and coal workers in Ohio, said:
_Ninety-three percent of all nitrogen oxide in the air is released by trees and vegetation, nitrogen oxides produce the haze that gives the Smoky Mountains their name, and some doctors are investigating whether nitrogen oxides 'might be beneficial to tubercular patients.'
_The Mount St. Helens volcano spewed more sulfur dioxide into the air than the past 10 years of auto emissions.
In a news release Thursday, Reagan said he believes air pollution is substantially under control. Asked about the statement by reporters, Reagan first denied he ever said such a thing and then said later he does believe air pollution is substantially under control.
'I found Governor Reagan's comments in Ohio in the past three days to be strange and bewildering,' said Gus Speth, President Carter's top environmental adviser. 'They reflect a pervasive misunderstanding of the key facts and issues.'
Speth said the notion that trees pollute the air with nitrogen oxide 'is preposterous.' Nitrogen oxide is made by soil bacteria and is not a pollutant, he said.
Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, an environmentalist organization, said other oxides of nitrogen that do pollute the air are formed by combustion of nitrogen at temperatures over 800 degrees.
'It is not trees, but power plants, automobiles and factories that put nitrogen oxide pollutants into the atmosphere,' Pope said.
He also said Reagan was wrong in asserting nitrogen oxides are responsible for the haze that gives the Great Smoky Mountains their name.
'Nitrogenoxides, even in large concentrations, are brown, not blue,' said Pope. 'They are not found naturally over the Smokies, and they are a serious health menace ...
'Ronald Reagan is just plain wrong.'
Douglas Costle, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said Reagan may have meant that trees give off nitrous oxides, which they do when they are in the decaying process. However, he said nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, is released in small amounts and is not hazardous to humans.
Costle called Reagan's remarks 'irresponsible.'
'Mr. Reagan claimed that nitrogen oxides pollution might be beneficial to tubercular patients,' Costle said. 'We know of no scientific basis for such a claim ... studies have shown that nitrogen oxides can be fatal at high concentrations. At lower levels, they can irritate the lungs, can cause bronchitis and pneumonia ....'
Joe Fontaine, president of the Sierra Club, suggested Reagan does not know much about trees, reminding reporters of Reagan's statement as governor of California that 'when you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all.'
Speth also quoted EPA figures showing man-made sulfur dioxide pollution, largely from old electric power plants, is more than 40 times worse than the sulfur dioxide pollution from the Mount St. Helens volcano.
And contrary to Reagan's statements, Speth said cars produce little sulfur dioxide.
Costle said Mount St. Helens emits about 1,000 tons a day of sulfur oxides, while autos emit an entirely different kind of pollution _ carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.
Responding to Reagan's statement about air pollution being under control, Costle noted Los Angeles has been under an ozone alert for 10 straight days and several people have been hospitalized from the effects of the smog.