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Let's Unplug Dirty, Old Coal Plants

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14 October 2011, 1:44 PM
Political weakness keeps them polluting 30+ years too long

Across the nation, old coal-fired power plants are gasping for their last breath, having survived long past their prime because of political favors and weak government regulations. They would have died decades ago if not for a fateful policy compromise in the late 1970s that exempted existing power plants from new air quality standards in the Clean Air Act.

The compromise was based on a prediction that the plants would be retired soon, but instead it gave them a whole new lease on life, with a free pass to pollute for another 30 plus years. And until recently, there was no end in sight.

These plants continue to cough up toxic pollutants like mercury, lead and arsenic into the air. They are by far the biggest producers of the power sector’s pollution, forcing millions of Americans to seek their own life support – in the form of respirators and inhalers – just to get through each day without an asthma attack.

Earthjustice litigation is taking steps to close the loopholes and retire dozens of the old plants, while cleaning up those that continue to operate. We are employing a multi-prong strategy to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen pollution standards based on the best available science and technology.

National environmental laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts are meant to be updated regularly to reflect the current science. Thanks to our litigation, the EPA has recently begun to deliver on the promise of our nation’s environmental laws by taking long overdue action on limiting mercury from coal, cleaning up the air in our national parks that is obscured by power plant haze, and setting national standards on water pollution. In addition, the EPA is currently on the hook for enforcing greenhouse gas emission standards, updating national standards for smog and soot.
Our goal is to end what amounts to government subsidizing of the coal power industry, and to invigorate the clean energy economy. That’s good for the climate, for our health—and for jobs. Early this year, a report by Ceres showed that the EPA’s two new air quality rules would create nearly 1.5 million jobs over the next five years because of pollution control equipment and jobs from clean energy development.

As EPA does its job and these new regulations are adopted, dirty coal plants are being forced to decide whether to pay the price of significant pollution upgrades – or shut down and replace that power with cleaner choices.

Of course, coal plant owners and their allies don’t want to have to make that choice. Even now, instead of focusing on ways to fix the economy, the coal industry is waging an all-out defensive attack on environmental protections that are good for the nation but threaten their industry’s bottom line.

Some coal plant operators have seen the writing on the wall. Since many plants are already past their prime, some are choosing to retire—a hard decision made all the easier by our litigation. For example, this spring the owner of the Trans Alta coal plant, Washington state’s largest source single source of air pollution, agreed to shut down the plant by 2025 after coming to the realization that installing the air pollution controls necessary to comply with air and water pollution standards was not a profitable venture. Currently we’re also stepping up efforts to shut down dirty, outdated coal plants in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Montana, Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, and the Midwest.

We’re also working to encourage clean energy alternatives. Our clean energy program includes preventing construction of transmission lines that favor coal over renewable energy sources and encouraging smart grid developments that rely on clean energy sources like wind and solar, strengthening efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, and pushing full implementation of state-level climate and renewable energy policies.

The nation is at an energy crossroads. One path cuts old ties and moves on to a clean energy future powered by a mix of next generation power sources. The other path prolongs our dependence on an energy source that is cooking the planet and making us sick. The choice is clear. Thank you for joining with us as we help build the clean energy path.

Thanks for standing up and being counted. Thanks for being knowledgeable and spreading your information. I am an advocate for many causes. I believe saving the environment is an important cause. However, I was recently contacted by my Wisconsin Republican senator explaining that the EPA was a mess and jobs were his priority. Many of my associates tend to agree with that philosophy. In these tough economic times it is difficult to get across your point. I am disgusted that neither political party is willing to compromise on most issues in this country. I am also disgusted that people waste so much and corruption seems rampant. Is this the meaning of democracy?
For as long as I could I made contributions to various causes including yours. I am a member of WISPIRG. Now I find it difficult to contribute to anyone and more and more people have their hand out. Continue the good fight, but I can only support you with my voice not my pocketbook.

Thanks for the information. Thanks for people like you who sound knowledgeable and are willing to stand up and be counted. Thanks for recruiting others. My Republican senator from the state of Wisconsin recently responded to my request to vote for the environment bills by telling me that the EPA is a mess and the economy takes precedence. Many of my friends are also saying that jobs are more important. I tend to be more of a Democrat, but I can't understand why both parties agree on very few things. I am an advocate for many things; however I have stopped contributing to many causes because I can't afford the money and too many people have their hands out. Furthermore, I see too much waste on everybody's part and graft and corruption everywhere.

The amount of filth the coal industry has pumped into the air is incalcuable. Then there's the ugliness and environmental damage caused to the areas where it's been dug up.

Is it even concievable that they continue to demolish mountains, forests to do even more damage toour earth?

We can all agree that there are cleaner ways of making energy than coal...But in the mean time, the technology is mostly here to make our existing infrastructure run cleaner. Example: particulate matter from coal is notoriously high, but newer advances in baghouse technology can provide for nearly 100% collection efficiencies (in laboratory conditions).

"Tests of PTFE filter bags from several different manufacturers showed particulate matter outlet emissions as low as 0.0006 gr/ACF (1.3mg/m3). In most size ranges the test PTFE fabrics showed zero emissions during testing. Emissions data were below the detection limits of the testing equipment. The fractional efficiency percentages were 100%, only dipping to 99.98% with particle sized 0.3-0.5 (μM)."

Sure there are drawbacks to any kind of energy production, especially coal, but to write all of it off is simply being blind to realities of current situation...i.e. living in the real world vs. dream world.

Having been unemployed for over one year I understand the sensitivity to protecting jobs. However, these industries and heavy polluters have known the danger they posed to our health for about 40 years. I literally can't imagine getting up and going to work every day with the knowledge that my company and my work was endangering people. I can't imagine thinking that was okay.

The economy is a real issue, but what was their excuse the other 40 years? If the economy turns around then does the legislation become active again? What about finding jobs for those people in green energy? Work is work.

I know if the producers of this filth had to live in or next to it, there would be some changes right away.

It's long past time to get these dirty plants off line and replced by cleaner fuel sources!

Earthjustice is a fine organization that does exemplary work across the spectrum of environmental issues. However, when it comes to energy, it risks falling all over its legal briefs. Why? Because its goals are so small when compared to the fossil fueled Goliath that must be slayed. Nothing short of the extermination of the coal industry can be the goal. Without that as the goal, the rest is mere tactics and strategy. Natural Gas? Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And with a drilling boom now on for shale gas, plenty of it will be released unburned into the atmosphere.
As it stands now, coal and nuclear fission are the base of the electricity neural network that enters every pore of our modern existence. No one in the general population of the US has ever been harmed by uranium based fission. The waste issue is in large part the result of the Federal government's calling a waste that which is a fuel in need of reprocessing.

Any time the nuclear power question is raised the liberals storm out in unison, environmentalists or not, and cry out: Oh! but they haven't solved the waste problem yet! Then there is the blatant child-like refusal to accept any amount of radiation, no matter that all life, even such as ourselves, is bathed in it every day. The Chinese, the Indians, and the Norwegians apparently want to take up where the US, the Germans, and even the French left off, with new reactor designs that are safer and do not involve uranium reprocessing. Once fission power replaces King Coal, renewables will finally become relevant to the climate juggernaut wrought by addiction to fossil fuels.

This is why I do not understand all the hype and spin about electric cars being clean and the answer to global warming. If they are electric, they are running on coal for the most part, right? Power plants are more polluting than gas, right? Or am I missing something?

I agree until we quit subsidizing dirty coal, petroleum and its by products, and the most evil invention, PLASTIC, we are just poking the bear. Start walking, use daylight, fireplaces or wood stoves for heat. Compost bins and gardens. Hand trim your bushes and hedges and get a push mower that does not need gas or oil. Recycle, recycle, recycle! Last but not least get the lobbyist out of Washington D.C.

I am a former lifelong resident of New Jersey now living in Kentucky. With every letter or e-mail I have sent to Mitch McConnel and Rand Paul, Republican Senators, the answer is always the same, protecting jobs in the coal industry. They care about nothing else. It makes me disgusted to live in this state when I see that health and environment mean nothing. What good are those jobs if you and your family and neighbors drop dead from the conditions caused by the coal industry? Are politicians blind?

Big Oil/Coal/Gas & Nuclear have longtime monopolies on our energy. Clean, Cheap, Alternatives exist. EVERYBODY GOOGLE: Human Waste as Fuel, San Antonio, to see how their entire city is fueling itself with Natural Gas made from human waste (known since the 70's!). It ALSO eliminates the need for FRACKING!

Not only does coal pollute the environment when it's burned, but also when it's dug out of the ground. Coal causes irrevocable damage to both the air we breathe & the water we drink, making people sick & poisoning the Environment. STOP MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL and the burning of coal & other fossil fuels!

Get rid of old dirty coal plants!

Coal, oil & gas were intended to be gone from combustion power generation decades ago, because even in the 1960s, responsible scientists, engineers & some ordinary folks realized burning sources of valuable hydrocarbon compounds was both stupid & wasteful...

We were to have dispensed even with present water-cooled reactors by 2000, having ~700GWe of safe breeders, like the Thorium MSR...

But, as the old country saying goes: "There's no substitute for human stupidity" (like the QWERTY keyboard, or our choice of representatives :)

The Chinese have taken up where we left off in the '60s and, if we continue our stupidity, we'll have even more debt to offer them...

If you've ever lived in a steel town, or a paper plant town, or lived close enough to an incinerator, or trash/garbage dump, you'd know what the impact of smelling and breathing in the fumes from these places are. Having to clean the soot in your house or apartment EVERY DAY, because it is black and oily, is a struggle. AND WE BREATH IN THOSE THINGS EVERY DAY. One wonders what the industries who produce these pollutants really think about NOT wanting to improve their long-term bottom line. Apparently, only TODAY matters to them. And what about THEIR CHILDREN? Do they and their children live near these polluting facilities? I doubt it. But THIS IS THE REASON WHY THE "OWS" MOVEMENT IS SO IMPORTANT. It's about "BIG" not caring. Not caring for "Little," because the bottom line is more important than the health and lives of the people who work for them, AND...their families.
And about the people who use their products. THEY DON'T CARE! Money is SO important to them. They are disconnected from life's true values and principles. They don't see that WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. For them, it's all about "US or THEM." – IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.

Thirty some years ago I lived in Alabama and a fight went on between Alabama Power and the american coal industry. Alabama Power wanted to keep the air as clean as possible so they were buying coal from south america rather than american coal which was considered "dirty coal". Now the american coal producers have adopted the ploy of calling their dirty coal "clean coal". Nothing has been done to clean up our "dirty coal" but it has magically changed into "clean coal".
What happened?

I can't speak for other states' situations, but here in Texas, our politicians are wholely owned by the energy industry. They support the coal burning electric plants against any attempts by the EPA to reduce their emissions, despite the health implications. They are much more interested in keeping the flow of contributions flowing than looking out for the health and welfare of their constituents.

It doesn't feel good to know pollution is being legalized at the same time you have to suck for air when you are short of breath. If politicians had their heads held under water for 3 minutes then came up for air in a smog filled room I believe the would think a whole lot different.

"Across the nation, old coal-fired power plants are gasping for their last breath, having survived long past their prime because of political favors and weak government regulations. They would have died decades ago if not for a fateful policy compromise in the late 1970s that exempted existing power plants from new air quality standards in the Clean Air Act."

Dirty coal needs to clean up their act before they can honestly promote their commercials as a clean, cheaper energy source!

Thanks for the article pointing some of the many problems with our reliance on coal. To which I might add that people check out Leslie Glustrom's excellent research, using USGS data, showing that we are rapidly approaching severe coal supply constraints when it will no longer be economically viable to mine coal in Wyoming, which supplies almost 40% of our nation's coal. Almost all states have passed peak, hence mountain top removal. We need to start planning for a transition away from coal today. In 10 years, it will be too late.

Come on you neanderthals! Everything and everyone on this planet was NOT put here for YOU to make profit!!! We have the ability to live in such an awesome world, But these neanderthals with their INSANITY just keep breeding spreading their CANCER! Time to grow, and learn from past MISTAKES! COAL was a huge MISTAKE!

I share the outrage in this global raping of the environment by Big Coal. The issue here is three-fold. One, America needs to expand its clean energy options. Two, America must consume less energy in general. Three, America has to be more self-reliant in securing its energy sources.

Utilizing our countries' natural resources: wind, solar and natural gas are the only logical options to become less reliant on foreign oil (Middle Eastern in particular). Hopefully, natural gas extraction methods in this country can become robustly safe and repeatable to take advantage of our natural gas deposits. Natural gas (in my opinion) is vital for our energy future. Solar power plants are also a big contributor in our future plans to diminish our need for OPEC (and Big Coal as well). Wind will likely to be a special case option.

When it comes to reduced energy consumption (ergo--energy efficiency), there are a number of choices to alleviate the problem.To start the list, efficient electrical power generation would be a great start. Seeing the link below, consider a Wartsila natural gas-fired power plant built with Scuderi Engine Technology. This pairing would offer the most practical, effective course of action to extend our natural gas reserves and greatly free the U.S. of the pollution nightmare the burning of coal and to a lesser extent, (but, still very significant) oil ( more if biofuel is used instead of oil). This would be a reachable goal to strive for. A national network for the delivery of our natural gas (LNG and CNG) to all users is on-going and accellerating.

The next significant point on the list would be to greatly reduce the use of all domestic fuels used in the transportation industry (Cars, Trucks, Trains and Maritime Transport(maritime explored specifically in the above link). These fuels include gasoline, diesel (bio and non), natural gas, ethanol and hydrogen. An extraordinary reduction can be realized when this same Scuderi Engine Technology is applied to all the internal combustion engines used in this catagory. This technology offers very high power density, as well as, significantly cleaner emissions . Don't take my word for it, investigate this yourself at

The predominate answer to all of the list is Innovation (preferribly American Innovation) . It just so happens that one major source of reaching our future environmental and energy efficiency goals is found in this profound American Innovation: Scuderi Engine Technology.

One more important issue to consider. This article by Trip argues that COAL needs to be phased out. OK, that's a given. What's not a given is with what and how. Over the last century, billions of dollars have been spent building the electrical infrastucture that distributes power being generated by COAL and to a much lesser degree NUCLEAR.This article brings to light that a large number of COAL (and not to forget, many NUCLEAR) powerplants are operating beyond their planned life expectancy. My suggestion is that our country NOT indescrimentally scrap all that has been put in place with this old approach but phase-in a replacement technology that builds upon what already exists (and is paid for---ready to emerge online with the shortest delay). Replacing the old fuel source (defunct/excessively polluting COAL plants primarily and spent NUCLEAR plants secondarily) with the highest efficiency NATURAL GAS or BIOFUEL powered versions makes the most economic sense. The SCUDERI/WARTSILA approach has the greatest merit in this resolution. Sidenote: Most of the powerplants in this discussion have legacy issues with onsite contamination from years of dirty operation.Total decomissioning and reversion of these sites to pre-existance conditions would be extremely expensive. Reusing these brownfields for industial applications (such as power generation) would be extremely less problematic than trying to recover these parcels for agricultural/residential/natural uses. Also, for those concerned with power line losses associated with powerplants located at great distances (for logistical reasons) from where used, CNG/LNG/standard pressure NATURAL GAS/BIOFUEL SCUDERI/WARTSILA generation units can be situated regionally/municipally to address all electricity demands.

In conclusion, the point is to use what we have effectively with the greatest efficiency. Expand ALL the technology that this nation has at its reach to propel our country forward to expouse the ideals set forth by the team at Earthjustice/Sierra Club ...etc.

Unfortunately, the missing elements are political will and mature technologies. Extraction industries, particularly energy related, are deep pocketed and entrenched. Their profits depend on not only extracting fuel from the ground but maximum return on capital investment. Coal is still an abundant fuel source in the United States and elsewhere and will continue to be mined and burnt, either directly or by conversion to gas. If one accepts that reality, then one must also accept the reality of a need for improved combustion technology, something you suggest, Phil. Fuel producers are of course only part of the equation though.

Many power plants, as pointed out in the article, are well past their life expectancy, having long ago been depreciated on the books and now still functioning by dint of determined maintenance and an aversion to spending much more money to replace them completely.

The most effective way to incentivize big polluters is to give them a more economically attractive alternative to what they are doing. Specifically, encouraging the development of vastly improved efficiencies as you mention. The key is developing these technologies to the point where they are mature enough to stand on their own and present a low adoption risk to the power generation industry which is in this fro the long haul—plants must function at low cost of operation for decades.

From a political standpoint, pressure must build to force the shift. If regulation squeezes profits by forcing the construction of newer facilities, then technology must rise to the challenge and offset the costs over a reasonable capital depreciation horizon. Making change requires both an economic and policy making approach. Industry cannot just be forced to adopt a technology, it must be shown how near-term investment in new technologies will help to ensure future profits, otherwise it will simply resist and slow efforts at curbing emissions. We will be much more effective by recruiting power generation operators through economic arguments than if we simply say it's the right thing to do—even if it is.

Shutting these plants down can't come too soon. Should've been done 30 years ago. There'd probably a lot more people allive today. I used to live in MD and as a pilot have flown back and forth over the appilacians many times and personnally witnessed the yellowish-brown smog emminating from these smokes stacks. These fingers of smog spread out as they move east and the air turns from clear (or white haze depending on the humidity) into a brownish haze. It doesn't take rocket scientist to understand that this stuff moves from the air we breath to the water we drink and the food we eat. Just go look at the cancer rates in these areas, or ask someone that has lived in one of these areas all their lives how many people they know that have had cancer. Then ask someone in similarly populated area in the mid west or west that same question.

I move to Oregon 10 years ago to give my kids a chance to live heathier lives. It's probably too late for me given I've lived on the east coast all by the last 10 years and still have to visit frequently for business.

No one seems to remember that the "Three Mile Island" nuclear power plant failure released less radioactive material than the average coal-fired power-generating plant. So, add one more reason to strictly enforce existing legislation.

Elsewhere in this appeal y'all decry fill material "exemption"; there are NO (such) FWPCA (CWA) EXEMPTIONS -

The Secretary may issue permits, after notice and opportunity for public hearings for the discharge of dredged or fill material into the navigable waters at specified ... But Only UNTIL:

SEC. 2

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act is amended to read as follows:


SEC. 101 [33 U.S.C. 1251] Declaration of Goals and Policy

(a) The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological
integrity of the Nation's waters. In order to achieve this objective it is hereby declared that,
consistent with the provisions of this Act--

(1) it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985!!

There is NO excuse for any continued or remaining surface water pollution TODAY!!!

While we all list the traditional pollutants of coal being particulates (causes respiratory diseases), SO (acid rain), NOx (smog), mercury (stunts development), and carbon (climate change) -- coal also has other heavy metals that harm human and animal immune systems, and a large portfolio of carcinogens. Coal is closer to smoking tobacco, and while you can't smoke in most public places, you must breathe the air of these coal plants. There have been 24 peer-reviewed studies over the last three years showing high value energy efficiency and renewable energy can meet all our energy needs. Scott Sklar, President, The Stella Group, Ltd., and Adjunct Professor, George Washington University

I have been unemployed for 3 years and have lost everything; but I would never want someone to use me as an excuse to create a job at the expense of the lives and health of our citizens!

Hate to be a wet blanket since i like to breathe and know that O2 is our major nutrient. The average person needs about 35#/day. Dr. Warburg proved starting in 1931 that cancer always takes place in a low oxygen environment. The pollution (mostly big Ag) running into the oceans is killing chlorophyll. The ocean makes more O2 than all the land since it covers 3/4 of the planet and can make chlorophyll pretty deeply, and then there are all the deserts and paved land areas that produce no O2 anyway.

That said, the planet is missing over one third of it's norman O2 supply because of herbicides and toxic run-off and dumping. But we all know that people are going to expect to have their electricity. How can we effectively change out the power produced by these plants for an alternative? An American made alternative? The solar and wind is not going to cut it although i have some panels and sold my wind charger when i moved from the windy ridge in SW Colo. No wind to mention on this place in N Cal.

What we truly need is non-centralized power. I personally wanted a steam powered generator when i lived in WV. Sun was a lousy choice as was wind, but i could've had a steam powered generator that ran the steam through radiators and condensed back as distilled water. Couple that with a vacuum system to make it boil and distill easier (find an old navy steam engineer from a destroyer or something) and you have renewable heat and power that is independent of the ice storms and vagaries of weather.

Just a thought.


Thank you ... at last! Many utilities will continue to run their 30-40 year old coal plants for as long as they can. Those of us in regulated states have the most to lose if the regulators continue to use 'pricing in the public interest' as their excuse.

The major banks are all reporting investment requirements for the coal industry of between $70 and 150 Billion. The banks state that up to 70GWs can not justify additional investment to become compliant with Clean Air rules. An additional share of the 70% of all coal plants ... the ones over 30 years old ... will require major investments and are not efficient enough to pour money into.

My question ... how can we better highlight the investment alternatives that are available right now and show that renewable investment can compare financially very favorably over the long term?

We live in the land of ignorance. Very few people are aware of nano coal particles and what they are doing to our health day and night. I live about 2 miles away from a coal fired power plant and when the wind is in the wrong direction the air here is bad. I would like to see more health information exposing the health risks of nano coal particles.
The big money behind coal and oil is dragging its feet and should be helping us move towards cleaner, safer, renewable energies. Their profit motive is killing us.

Je suis d,accord avec commentaires, particulerement avec commentaire derniere. Il y a assez d,energie renouvelle! Nous ne necessons pas poluer notre terre! C,est unique pour tout les gens de monde!

I have asked my Senators to do something about the Bruce Mansfield Coal power nuclear plant that we live 10 miles from.Almost everyone including me have thyroid disease, and with that, osteoarthritis,Our dogs have thyroid disease and two died from it.The high CO2 is causing REALLY HIGH MOLD, People drive crooked around here because the mold stuffs up their ears, and they get dizzy. And there's poison ivy, and from the 98% mercury emmisions, I can't eat fish anymore. Our air is so bad that you can't find benedryl in our grocery stores. If I drive north I can breathe. When I drive back to Beaver county PA, I have to roll up my windows, take 4 benedry and an antivert and stay in the house for at least 3 days.They put all the waste from the coal plant in a lake with nio liner and are now digging up some more property tro put dry waste in it. The People around this lake have complained about their water in their wells was polluted and there was a huge uproar asking them not to put any more waste there. But, my Senators say, "If we closed it, we'd put 8 people out of work" I sa'If you biuld a newer safer plant you can hire 20 more people besides the 8.Now they are Fracking us pollution PA, and ANOTHER gas rig is on fire. Our senators don't care as long as the Frack companies and the electric compnies pay them off. We are doomed.

Basically, if it is pollution, it has to stop. It is not ok to kill humans and make them sick slowly or fast. Investing in our future that is safe and clean energy, and that is solar and wind, is what we should ONLY allow. The government should NEVER allow pollution of any kind ever for it kills people, and the planet which is our future. thanks you. dawn hightree

let's hope the Chinese and other nations will close their plants also.

with regards to the pollution statement this is a wonderful article. if coal powered plants shut down and alternative energy sources EXCEPT DANGEROUS NUCLEAR PLANTS are in place it will put a huge dent in big oil and further reduce america's dependance on fossil fuels. any scientist worth 2 cents will say that the greenhouse gases and ozone layer is NOT due to human error as it is the earth taking its natural cycle just like in the dinosaur days, pushing more into alternative energy will force big oil and the rich fat cats to release all the alternative energy ideas and designs back to the public and the environment will be a much cleaner place for us to live in as well as our water. i know here in the town i live in theres alot of brown sediments or "hard" water and it was due to a water main break years and years ago and it still affects the water because of the towns lazyness(typical of wisconsin) these stands will push them to clean thier acts up as well:)

No exemption should be made, especially one to do with the quality air we breath, it's The Single most important thing, every ecosystem depends on it in the world.

We have a bio source system that has ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS, which takes most any bio source and eliminates it and converts to renewable energy. MP BioMass can take; fly ash~coal ash, lawn debris, wood chips, petroleum waste, sludge, garbage, and more and thermal chemically process it to electricity which can be funneled into the grid, oxygen ~ grade 5, and methanol. We have been doing this since 2003, have facilities models to prove it, and have one of the finest scientific foundations and engineering firms in the world backing us. Please feel free to visit us at Facebook! We welcome your comments...

Scott Wesley

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