By Katrina Marland

Coal power plant in Utah (Credit: Flickr/lowjumpingfrog)

I try to be pretty green in all I do, but I’ll admit that when it comes to power usage, I’m about as guilty as anyone else. I love my TV, sometimes leave lights on and am on my computer for a good chunk of the day. Since I can’t avoid using power, it’s good to know that something is being done to make sure that the places creating the power I use are cleaning up their acts — and the air.

First up, mercury: turns out, it isn’t just something you have to worry about in tuna fish. Factories and power plants produce mercury emissions, just as they produce carbon dioxide and other substances. Despite the dangers that mercury can represent, it wasn’t until very recently — about a month ago — that the EPA created strict regulations for it. The new regulations, dubbed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), place specific limits on some of the more dangerous pollutants generated by coal or oil-burning power plants, such as mercury, arsenic and cyanide.

Then, there’s carbon dioxide. With this nasty gas, the EPA is taking new steps to keep us informed. The agency recently released its first comprehensive database identifying the nation’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The data shows that power plants were by far the biggest culprits nationwide, and with 45 percent of power plants in the U.S. powered by coal, I can’t say that I’m all that surprised. But you can go a step further and use the tool to find which facilities in your town are serious polluters, exactly how much pollution they emit and what kind. The hope is that once the public is better informed, businesses, individuals and nonprofits will be able to put pressure on the those companies and facilities to clean up their operations.

The pollutants are measured in CO2 equivalents, which takes into account both the amount of the pollutant emitted and its global warming potential. The information for your own hometown will of course be worth looking up, but here are just a few tidbits from the database in general:

  • The three largest stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are a set of three power plants in Georgia and Alabama. And they are all owned by the same company: Southern Company.
  • The state of Texas has by far the highest rate of emissions with 294 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent pushed into the atmosphere in just one year. Second place goes to Pennsylvania with 129 million metric tons.
  • The states with the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources are Idaho and Rhode Island (not a surprise for the smallest state in the union), but Alaska can lay claim to the lowest amounts of GHGs from power plants, with only two metric tons produced in 2010.