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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.

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.