The 20 States With the Worst Toxic Air Pollution From Power Plants

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The National Resources Defense Council's latest annual “Toxic Power” report contains good news for air quality, namely that toxic air pollution from power plants decreased roughly 19 percent from 2009 to 2010. The improvement came as many plants switched to burning natural gas instead of coal and as some plants installed new pollution controls looking to meet anticipated health protections set by the Environmental Protection Agency. “I was very pleased to see a drop of nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2010, even before the EPA standards were fully finalized or the dramatic shifts had occurred in the gas market,” says John Walke, the clean air director for NRDC. “We just lived through 2011 and I know that those trends only accelerated during that year. This is a good news story with isolated aberrations like Kentucky.”

Toxic air pollution in Kentucky increased by about 27 percent in 2010, which led to roughly 10 million more pounds of toxins being released in the air. The increase alone matches the amount of toxic air pollution released by the state in the number 10 spot, Texas. 

The other good news the NRDC is trumpeting? New EPA standards, set in 2011 to take effect in 2015, will further improve air quality. Here's a summary from the report about how the new standard will help:

Compared to 2010 levels, the standard will reduce mercury pollution from 34 tons to seven tons, a 79 percent reduction, by 2015. Sulfur dioxide pollution will be reduced from 5,140,000 tons in 2010 to 1,900,000 tons in 2015, a 63 percent reduction. Another dangerous acid gas, hydrochloric acid, will be reduced from 106,000 tons in 2010 to 5,500 tons in 2015, a 95 percent reduction.

With those and other pollution reductions resulting from the standard, as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,700 hospital visits, 4,700 heart attacks, and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis will be avoided in 2016. The public health improvements are also estimated to save $37 billion to $90 billion in health costs, and prevent up to 540,000 missed work or “sick” days each year.

The bad news?

Even though a James Inhofe-led resolution to repeal the new EPA standards was defeated in the Senate in June, the NRDC worries a new effort to repeal the rules could sneak through Congress. “The House of Representatives last year passed two or three bills to abolish or severely weaken and delay the mercury air toxic standards,” says Walke. “Due to that backdrop there is great concern about legislative sneak attacks following a lame duck session after the elections or in September, for example, when must-pass legislation for the year resumes consideration.”

In 2010, power plants pumped roughly 310 million pounds of pollution into the air, an amount that represents roughly 44 percent of all industrial toxic air pollution. Other sources of industrial air pollution include discharge from the manufacturing of paper products, the food and beverage industry, and chemicals.

Why should you care about the worst polluting states? The 20 states on this list account for 92 percent of electric sector toxic air pollution, even though they only account for 62 percent of electricity generation and are home to just 54 percent of the total U.S. population, and the pollution they create can travel. In short, even if you don't live in one of the states below, you can be affected by the toxins they release.

The 20 States With the Worst Toxic Air Pollution From the Electric Sector

1. Kentucky: 40,564,585lbs
2. Ohio: 36,405,858
3. Pennsylvania: 31,482,857
4. Indiana: 26,234,197
5. West Virginia: 18,101,675
6. Florida: 16,662,542
7. Michigan: 15,543,430
8. North Carolina: 14,634,490
9. Georgia: 13,438,115
10. Texas: 10,454,140
11. Tennessee: 9,640,464
12. Virginia: 9,474,271
13. South Carolina: 9,343,200
14. Alabama: 8,291,061
15. Missouri: 5,114,713
16. Illinois: 4,665,396
17. Mississippi: 3,989,857
18. Wisconsin: 3,574,179
19. Maryland: 3,126,022
20. Delaware: 2,942,946

For a copy of the full “Toxic Power” report, go here.

—Joe Spring

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