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Bill DiBenedetto headshot

The NRDC Toxic 20: How’s Your State’s Air Up There?

We know that power plants, especially the coal-fired variety, pollute the air. But where is it really bad? What states have the most toxic air?

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council provides the answer, known as the Toxic 20.

And the big three “winners” are: Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Residents of those states are exposed to more toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants than in any other state, according to the NRDC analysis.

But there is some moderately good news in the report’s finding: there was a 19 percent decrease in all air toxins emitted from power plants in 2010, the most recent data available, compared to 2009 levels. The decline, which also showed a 4 percent decrease in mercury emissions, resulted from two key factors, NRDC said.

One is the increasing use by power companies of natural gas, which has become cheaper and is cleaner burning than coal; the other is the installation of state-of-the-art pollution controls by many plants--in anticipation of new health protections issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Finalized in 2011, the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics standards will cut mercury air pollution by 79 percent from 2010 levels, beginning in 2015.

In the second edition of “Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States,” NRDC also found that coal- and oil-fired power plants still contribute nearly half (44 percent) of all the toxic air pollution reported to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The report also ranks the states by the amount of their toxic air pollution levels.

So while toxic pollution has decreased, vigilance remains necessary.

“Toxic pollution is already being reduced as a result of EPA’s health-protecting standards,” said John Walke, NRDC’s clean air director. “But these protections are threatened,” he continued, “because polluters are intent on persuading future Congresses or presidential administrations to repeal them.”

For example, an early assault on the EPA’s standards saw the House of Representatives pass a bill to gut them last year; but a similar measure in June failed in the Senate.

Franz Matzner, NRDC associate director of Government Affairs, says, “For too long, Americans have had no choice but to breathe toxic air pollution. Thanks to the EPA, the air is getting cleaner. But we need lawmakers who will help clean up the air we all breathe --- not lawmakers who do the bidding of Big Polluters trying to repeal safeguards that protect children’s health. This and future Congresses should let the EPA do its job so ALL Americans can breathe easier.”

Despite the overall reductions in total emissions, 18 of the Toxic 20 from 2009 remain in the 2010 list released today, although several states have made significant improvements highlighted in the report, NRDC said.

The states on the NRDC’s "Toxic 20" list (from worst to best) are:

1. Kentucky

2. Ohio

3. Pennsylvania

4. Indiana

5. West Virginia

6. Florida

7. Michigan

8. North Carolina

9. Georgia

10. Texas

11. Tennessee

12. Virginia

13. South Carolina

14. Alabama

15. Missouri

16. Illinois

17. Mississippi

18. Wisconsin

19. Maryland

20. Delaware

While the decline in toxic pollution is welcome, the idea that natural gas should become the main alternative to coal-fired plants while supplanting renewables—which the fossil-fuel crowd might well trumpet—is not the long-term answer to our energy needs: Fracking remains major issue and the EPA still needs to do its work.

Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States is essential reading and a public service from NRDC.

[Image: Navajo power plant by bass_nroll via Flickr]

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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