The air that we breathe and that nurtures all of nature is foul. It is poisoned by the fossil fuels, mostly coal and petroleum products, that power so much of our human activity.

Almost everyone seems to agree that we need to clean up our atmosphere, but people don't seem to appreciate the desperate need for immediate action.

Environmental scientists warn that unless we begin the cleanup by the end of this decade and have substantially completed the cleanup by the end of this century, it will be too late -- that all life on our planet will be doomed to extinction.

The most immediately available substitute for the polluting fossil fuels is the energy-generating windmill. The favorite locations eyed by the planners of the huge arrays of these windmills, called wind farms, are on the bays and sounds that line our ocean shores. The wind farms are bitterly opposed by many of those in whose back yards they would be built.

Now comes the first informed support for those opposed to the farms. It comes from, of all people, a body of scientists whose credentials equal those of the doomsday prophets.

That group of expert oceanographers is part of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy -- which, for a couple of years, has been pondering how we can save the oceans, whose future is severely endangered by many causes, including fossil fuels.

Their preliminary report, recently issued by the commission, strongly recommends that we go slowly in building offshore wind farms until we know far more about their impact on the marine environment itself.

Those Americans -- and that should be all of us -- who are interested in cleaning up our pollution for both this generation and the future of Earth itself have reason to ponder this conflict between two distinguished groups of equally renowned scientists.

Meanwhile, until the commission's scientists can be satisfied that the ocean environment can tolerate wind farms, it would seem that the farms must be banned, thus postponing indefinitely the beginning of construction urged by the ecologists.

Ironically, the damage to the oceans, of which the oceanographic scientists warn, also will speed the general deterioration of the atmosphere, of which the atmospheric scientists warn.

There is one other aspect of this dilemma that is worthy of our attention: One of the nation's great recreational areas is Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound. The Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the sound and similar sounds and bays that dot the U.S. coasts.

It has been studying whether to issue a permit to an entrepreneurial group that seeks to build a huge wind farm on Nantucket Sound. The Corps has been consulting 16 other government bureaus that are interested in everything from the health of birds and fish to big-ship navigation.

Interested parties thought that the Corps would reach a decision by the end of last year. As of today, it isn't promising when it might make up its mind. Since the Nantucket ruling is seen as a test case, the Corps' delay might well be holding up many other proposed wind farms around the country. It behooves the Corps of Engineers to clear its bureaucratic cobwebs and expedite this matter so urgent to our health and Earth's future. And it will be helpful if the scientists could reconcile their strongly held positions.


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(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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