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New Tool Reveals Country's Most Polluted Places: How Close Do You Live?

Thanks to a new tool from the EPA, you can see how close you live to the country's biggest polluters.
 
 
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Looking for some awkward synergy? The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a comprehensive database of America's greatest greenhouse gas creators. It interactively indexes the 6,700 power plants and other facilities responsible for 80 percent of U.S. emissions, in an accessible online resource that gives interested citizens the ability not only to monitor their local and national pollution, but also to reproduce data-specific graphs and charts to fire off to colleagues and friends on social networks.

The tool debuted the day after President Obama made his first-ever visit to the EPA, a much less impressive debut. Fueled by billions of tons of the greenhouse gases the EPA's GHG Reporting Program data publication tool dutifully tracks, global warming has recently unleashed an unseasonal hellscape on the U.S., with temperatures scorching some regions 40 degrees above normal. But at least Obama came with his environmental game-face on.

"We don't have to choose between dirty air and dirty water or a growing economy," President Obama stumped to a crowd of 800 employees gathered at the EPA's Washington headquarters. "We can make sure that we are doing right by our environment and in fact putting people back to work all across America. When I hear folks grumbling about environmental policy, you almost want to do a Back to the Future reminder of what happened when we didn't have a strong EPA. You have a president who is grateful for your work and will stand with you every inch of the way."

He may joke about time travel, but late last year it was the Sierra Club and many others -- likely including some of those EPA employees he addressed for the first time -- who wondered aloud whether America had slipstreamed straight back to the Bush regime after President Obama halted EPA regulation of smog and air pollution, a major slap in the face to the environmentalists who have looked to him for change since the 2008 election. One hopes that President Obama's administration will spend what's left of his first term taking the obvious ravages of global warming way more seriously.

The EPA's interactive tool is an excellent start. It collects valuable greenhouse gas emissions data for 2010, the first year the industry faced mandatory reporting in accordance with the 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, and sources it across nine industry groups, including power plants, petroleum refineries, chemical, metals and minerals facilities, landfills, pulp and paper plants and more. Researchers and green data geeks can search for specific greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons and others, while an emissions range bar allows them flexibility to search by sheer metric tonnage spewed into the air. Handy buttons above the interactive map of U.S. emitters can filter that data for presentation in maps, graphs, bars, trees and lists. They all come in quite handy for communicating the 2,324 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent exhaled by power plants, which accounted for over 72 percent of industry emissions in 2010, or the 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent choked out by the second-place petroleum refineries.

It doesn't take more than a few seconds to amp the emissions range bar up and smoke out America's most polluting plants, starting with its biggest loser: Georgia Power's coal-fired Robert W. Scherer plant, which produced nearly 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010. Opensourcing that data works wonders for transparency activists and interested citizens, who might start wondering aloud how long Georgia's Republican senator Saxby Chambliss can continue to vote against healthcare and patient-protection legislation, and for barring EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, when Scherer is not only the nation's top GHG emitter, but was also the world's 20th overall polluter, according to the D.C.-based think-tank Center for Global Development. And America's second-largest stationary polluter is Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia, which in 2010 coughed up over 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and in 2006 was the nation's largest emitter of sulfur dioxide.

Chambliss is nowhere near alone in selling out his citizenry to an obsolete energy sector in need of not just opensourced emissions data but heavy government regulation. Alabama's Miller Steam Plant came in third with nearly 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which probably comes as no surprise to the state's citizens or the EPA, which partially settled violations of the Clean Air Act with its operator Alabama Power Company. Alabama's Republican senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby have routinely opposed President Obama's regulation and legislation of the energy industry, as well as the healthcare industry which it annually supplies with new patients. It's no accident that America's Gulf states are its unhealthiest: Over 1,500 facilities in the Gulf were eligible to report GHG emissions to the EPA, greatly outdistancing the West Coast's cumulative 581.

But both regions are still swimming in poisonous pollution that is negatively impacting our collective health. And it only will get worse, as the years swelter onward to 2100, and Earth's average temperature, according to the latest global climate modeling, increases somewhere between 2 to 4.5 degrees (or worse). By then, the Gulf states will be scorched by exceptional drought, as other war-on-terra nightmares like extreme hurricanes, tornadoes and floods make the region's current migraines look like massages. Hopefully, the EPA's GHG Reporting Program will energize the national citizenry by using the sheer power of data and disclosure. As an EPA press release put it, "Today we have a transparent, powerful data resource available to the public."

Today, carbon dioxide is the runaway loser of the EPA's GHG Reporting Program, making up 95 percent of direct GHG emissions. But should methane move beyond its second-place finish at 4 percent of direct GHG emissions, we could have a runaway climate train going off the rails.

"Methane is four times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide," paleontologist Peter Ward told AlterNet last year in a wide-ranging discussion about climate change and mass extinction. "The good news is that, once released, it only lasts about 15 years. The bad news is that it breaks down into CO2! Great. A very lethal poison that turns into a less lethal poison."

In other words, making information on those various poisons available is a great start, but the EPA needs to move much faster designing a regulatory framework that tackles methane, C02 and even the smog and air pollution it kicked to the other side of the 2012 election. Luckily, next year the GHG Reporting Program will widen to include 12 other industries, including electronics manufacturing and underground mining, eventually covering 85 percent of total GHG emissions, all viewable in its rewarding online resource.

But freeing information is not the same as shackling polluters. That heavy lifting on industries has sadly been postponed until after the 2012 election.  

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.