The EPA recently released a new mapping tool that focuses on “Power Plants and Neighboring Communities” as the jump-off point to examine where sources of emissions are located. The tool is available online (no mobile version yet). It has the same data as the previous tool that I wrote about six years ago and thought it was amazing then. However, the latest iteration explicitly facilitates layers of information via a series of filters. The United States map includes any grid-connected generator and burns combustible fuel, including hospitals and college campuses. There are 3,477 power plants in the United States. Of those, 299 are coal plants, and 1,736 are gas.
EPA administrator Michael Regan stated: “We know air pollution affects some people worse than others. Achieving environmental justice starts with improving our understanding of the impacts of air pollution, especially in overburdened and historically underserved communities. This web resource equips users with actionable, science-based data on air quality in communities near power plants, many of whom are suffering the worst from pollution.”
The tool will be a key to unlocking information for those who track emissions. It can lessen the obstacles to information essential for stakeholders.
The landing page has tutorial guidance via a “Quick Start Guide.” After investigating the maps on my own, I connected with a spokesperson from the EPA who gave me a walk-through.
I had already done location searches against six spotlighted categories:
- Communities of Color
- Low-Income Status
- Level of Education
- Language Accessibility
- Children under 5 years of age
- People over 64 years of age
Each plant’s demographic data is represented by a circle and includes a 3-mile radius. The Legend (to the right) shows the Demographic Index, which combines an average of the two communities, people of color and low income. Red (95-100 percent), orange (90-94 percent), and yellow (80-89 percent). From zero to 79 percent is in 4 groups demarcated by tonalities of gray.
To the left of the map, fuel types are broken down:
- Other fossil fuels
Beyond the six previously noted, the filters below include specific emission types: SO2, NOX, CO2 and PM2.5. These subsets are explorable on a sliding scale format, from minimum to maximum (0-100).
Four squares in the upper right-hand corner display graphics to short cuts.
- The magnifying glass is a way to search for an address or place.
- The House icon brings you back to the home screen.
- The box third from the left represents the different layers available to search: Emission types; Fuel types; Combustion power plants; Census block groups; Tribal areas.
- The remaining square gives access to various “Basemaps” ranging from satellite imagery to highway and street-level observations.
I did a complete search on Port Arthur, Texas, which I have previously written about. The facility that I focused on was the one run by Motiva Enterprises. (While looking at the stats, I also did an online search for the company, which brought me to a 2013 article in the New York Times, “Texas Refinery Is Saudi Foothold in U.S. Market.”)
I looked at individual filters, and the results were pretty much what I expected. The total population within 3 miles is 29,745, and of that number, people of color reached the 89th percentile. The national percentile for people under age 5 is the 66th percentile. Less than a high school education is in the 88th percentile. Low income is 83rd percentile. There are links to more detailed material on each plant, so I checked out the facility’s Compliance record. In February 2020, they had “High Priority Violation” status connected to the Clean Air Act.
The bottom line became most apparent in the “Census Block Group EJ Indexes.” The Air Toxics Cancer Risk is at the 95th percentile. The Air Toxics Respiratory Hazard Index is at the 92nd percentile.
Currently, NRG Energy is proposing a new fracked gas power plant in Astoria, Queens. New Yorkers are rallying to submit comments against the plan. A look at the neighborhood map shows that there are already 3 combustion power plants in the 80-89th national percentile, with numerous indexes over the 80th percentile.
As the Biden administration continues its efforts to address environmental injustices, this EPA tool can help families understand where there are sources of pollution from power plants in their communities.