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Big data: Clicks and maps help the public achieve their environmental goals

Big data: Clicks and maps help the public achieve their environmental goals

February 2, 2022 – Anne Carpenter, Lily Chinn, and Alexandra Dapolito Dunn of Baker Botts LLP discuss “environmental bigdata” available to companies and governments on the impact of communities on the environment.

You can now view dozens or publicly available databases and resources about your community. These include information on the air quality, water quality, number of companies releasing substances to the environment, accidents and incidents involving those companies and penalties they have paid. Sometimes this information is straightforward to understand and can be put in context. At other times, it may require technical and regulatory knowledge.

These “environmental big datasets” contain a wealth of information, which is freely available for all to see. This data is also accessible to community groups, which can use it to improve the environment, encourage community investment, and promote community health. This backdrop forces companies to think carefully about how they manage environmental data, including the legal risks and benefits of disclosure.

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Environmental big data is a powerful tool for citizens and community activists to advocate for their environmental concerns. However, it also gives companies the opportunity to strategically manage their in-house data and information in order to reflect their environmental impacts.

Shareholders and investors closely examine publicly available data to assess company performance. There is an increased expectation that companies will take concrete steps towards reducing environmental impacts from their operations. This requires an understanding of local demographics and impacts, and supply chain and downstream corporate impact, especially in light the Environmental, Social, Governance (“ESG”) movement. Corporate leaders can use the information from the environment, as well as any inferences or conclusions, to anticipate and mitigate liability and identify areas for investment.

Government agencies recognize the importance of this environmental big-data. The Biden administration has pledged to make innovative use of big data, which includes demographic information such as household income, hospital admissions rates and environmental emissions, to support policy, funding, and enforcement initiatives that are focused on communities that have been historically marginalized or underserved and overburdened by polluting.

The administration is seeing big data as coming from the sky. EPA announced that it will increase its air monitoring capabilities using its newest technology on Jan. 25, 2022. ASPECT planeIt is equipped with a range of sensors and software.

To accomplish its goals, the administration also relies on existing and newly created databases.

EJSCREEN Database. One of the most important environmental databases is the EJSCREEN(Environmental Justice Mapping Tool), which is run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and first made available publicly in 2016. EJSCREEN provides data from federal databases for 11 environmental indicators that focus on exposure to and/or proximity of pollutants, risk or hazardous, and six demographic indicators such as income, race, and education. The data can be viewed graphically as separate layers or overlapping layers. The EJSCREEN tool allows users to see how different environmental impacts impact different communities. However, the EJSCREEN tool does not allow for analysis of the cumulative effects of those burdens on one community. EPABiden’s administration has made a commitment that it will increase data monitoring, train staff in EJSCREEN, and facilitate data exchange and enforcement between agencies.

ECHO Database. EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (“ECHO”) tool is publicly accessible and contains information related to regulated facilities’ permit data, inspection/compliance findings, environmental violations and enforcement actions. Notably facility summaries on ECHO include EJSCREEN data and demographic profiles.

Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool. The Biden administration focused on the use of existing data from EJSCREEN, ECHO and federal databases to develop a new geospatial tool called Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool. The new mapping tool will incorporate broader data sets in order to better identify environmental and climate risks for communities historically marginalized, overserved, and burdened by pollutants. Although the tool was originally intended to be released last year, it is still being developed and is intended for various purposes, including enforcement and funding priorities.

The state and local governments have also made a wealth of social and environmental data available. California’s own mapping tool CalEnviroScreenEJSCREEN is a model for EJSCREEN. It contains state data, and unlike its federal counterpart, it provides a cumulative effect score for each census block. This makes it easy for investors to identify disadvantaged communities and allows for enhanced enforcement under state law.

Similar geospatial tools are available in other states, including Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, North Carolina, Virginia.

Community organizations and non-governmental organisations have also created public repositories that contain locally compiled or collected information. These organizations train volunteers as well as employees to collect data.

These databases can be valuable resources for companies and other stakeholders to direct resources, prioritize issues, and stimulate regulatory action.

PurpleAirProvides affordable air monitors that citizen scientists can use to collect real time air quality data. The data can then be shared via a digital map on the organization’s website. This site has been extensively used during the California wildfires season to track air quality.

BloomwatchThis allows citizens to upload photos showing possible harmful algal blooms in an effort to protect recreational users as well as to bring regulators’ attention.

PropublicaProvides an interactive map that uses existing EPA data to identify areas with high levels of emissions and associated risks for cancer.

These databases collectively are intended to provide easy tools for users (corporate, government, and individual) to understand the practical implications, and to take informed action. Companies can use big data to support their ESG goals, reporting, and reporting. See “ESG Trends: Standardizing and Improving DisclosureReuters Legal News.

In today’s data-saturated world, it’s important to recognize that navigating and leveraging big information are crucial to achieving strategic goals.

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Nadira Clarke, a partner of the firm, contributed to the article.

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Opinions expressed are the author’s. These opinions do not reflect those of Reuters News. Reuters News is committed to integrity and independence as well as freedom from bias under the Trust Principles.Thomson Reuters owns Westlaw Today and operates independently from Reuters News.

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