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The financial benefits of the EPA data Trump doesn’t want you to know about

Making EPA data easily accessible to the private sector plays a significant role in many billion-dollar industries, from renewable energy to auto manufacturing

For more than 25 years, Walter Hang has helped local governments, engineers and homeowners make sense of hazardous waste. To do that, he digs into the enormous data vault maintained by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pinpoints information that is useful for his clients to assess the health and financial risks from nearby industrial properties and toxic waste sites.

Hang, who runs Toxics Targeting, now fears this trove of knowledge will become more difficult to access as the EPAs newly minted chief, Scott Pruitt, begins a broad rollback of regulations and shrinks the agencys staff. President Trump has vowed to weaken the EPA, contending that its rules for protecting public health stifle business development. The Trump administration has already eliminated or buried some information on EPA websites and moved to muzzle agency employees.

What Trump doesnt acknowledge is that EPA data isnt just an enforcement tool. The agency employs more scientists than any other government agency except Nasa. Decades of work by those scientists have generated valuable information about air and water pollution, chemical toxicity and hazardous waste cleanup. This information has enabled businesses to develop new products and services and create jobs in the process.

No one has estimated the financial benefits of making EPA data easily accessible to the private sector. But anecdotal evidence shows it plays a significant role in many billion-dollar industries, from lending and real estate to renewable energy development and auto designs and manufacturing. For example, chemical companies use the data to come up with less toxic compounds for dyeing textiles.

Banks wont loan money to a property developer without ensuring that the land is free of contamination, which can be an expensive liability. They rely on pollution data from the EPA, says Hang, who compiles the information into reports for companies in real estate development and transaction.

We are trying to make sure we get as much data as we can, and were trying to make sure we dont have data gaps, Hang says.

Hang isnt alone in worrying about access. Several campaigns, carried out mostly by university professors and students, to download and secure EPA data have sprung up since the November election. One of the first of such efforts began not in the US but in Canada. Matt Price, a history professor at the University of Toronto, helped organize guerrilla archiving events in December. Offering free pizza and coffee, these events recruited a small army of volunteers who began downloading EPA data to secure servers.

Price says he and his colleagues sprang into action after experiencing their own war on science by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, a conservative who slashed funding for science and ended important environmental monitoring projects. Price and others stepped up to preserve Canadian environmental data during that crisis.

We probably focused immediately on the EPA because of the extremely hostile language that came out of the Trump campaign around the EPA, says Price. We have put a kind of faith in the state as the long term guarantor of the integrity of scientific data. I think that faith may be misplaced.

Many companies rely on the agencys data to build products that tackle some of the biggest health and environmental problems. They sign research and development agreements with the EPA, which provides technical assistance in return for a share of any sales a company generates as a result.

EPA had 97 such contracts active in 2015, which yielded $232,318 in royalties for the agency. The previous year, 129 contracts produced royalties of $438,786.

Aclima, a San Francisco company that develops air-quality sensors and software, is working with the EPA to improve the devices sensitivity in detecting pollution. EPA air pollution data, gathered for decades at a regional scale, serves as an important reference and quality check for the company. Aclima has partnered with Google to collect air quality data by putting its mobile sensors on the StreetView cars that Google uses to create its maps. It plans to offer the resulting data to the public later this year.

Aclima CEO Davida Herzl says the EPAs air pollution data plays a foundational role in everything the company does. Anytime we lose information that is important to public health, that is a concern, Herzl says. It would be a massive blow to the business community in ways that arent always discussed. Innovation and private sector research is happening on top of that foundation of science that EPA has been developing for over 30 years now.

Even businesses that are set to benefit from Trumps plan to loosen environmental regulations are worried about losing access to EPA data, which they need for complying with state or local laws and for their own internal accounting of efficiency and performance, says Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Center for Science and Democracy, a program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The American Gas Association, which represents natural gas distribution utilities, recently notified members to download any EPA data they need in case it is removed from the agencys website. Pam Lacey, the associations chief regulatory counsel, says gas utilities use EPA data and other online resources to track methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. The data shows distributors have cut methane emissions by 74% since 1990.

They continue to do more work and theyd like to be able to keep the data that demonstrates what theyve done and what theyre doing on an ongoing basis, Lacey says. Also, some companies have their own internal goals for sustainability, and they would want to use that official EPA data.

None of the EPA data has been restricted or eliminated yet, say the scientists involved in the data backup campaigns, but they arent taking any chances. Their concern stretches beyond protecting existing EPA data, however. Major budget cuts, if implemented, means the agency may be unable to collect new data.

EPA officials within the Trump administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Their goal is to defund programs that gather data, says Jared Blumenfeld, former administrator of EPA Region 9 (California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii), who left the agency in May 2016. Its much, much harder in a digital age to get rid of data. Its a lot easier to not fund science so you dont have the data in the first place.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/mar/15/epa-data-trump-benefits


Breaking down barriers: how a Syrian refugee turned his good luck into jobs for others

Nirary Dachos determination to help fellow refugees find work in Australia inspired the launch of Refugee Talent

Just 14 months ago Nirary Dacho was a penniless refugee, landing at Sydney airport with a dream of being able to continue his career as an IT analyst in a country where he would be safe from Isis.

Today the 29-year old Assyrian sits in a comfortable office as the cofounder of Refugee Talent, a fast-growing digital platform that exists to get refugees into work.

This has been a rapid turnaround in fortune especially considering 48% of those on humanitarian visas remain unemployed 18 months after arriving.

Dacho has been able to break free from the traps that frustrate other refugees, thanks to a combination of lucky breaks and his ability to make good connections.

When Dacho arrived from Syria, via Lebanon, on a humanitarian visa with his parents, brother and sister, he could speak English, had a masters degree in web science and more than eight years of working in IT and teaching programming at university in Syria.

Even so, he found it impossible to break into the employment market, despite updating his skills to Australian qualifications.

My qualification was from overseas and I had no work experience in Australia and these are two of the main barriers for employment for refugees, he says.

Dacho applied for more than 100 jobs in his first eight months before getting his first lucky break which involved starring in a television news segment.

When the ABCs Lateline program was preparing a story on unemployed refugees, the assistance organisation, Settlement Services International, nominated Dacho as a client to be profiled.

After it was screened, 10 employers lined up to offer him work and help. With a three-month contract as a software engineer with the technology company Dolby Australia, he was getting local experience that seems a prerequisite for most employers.

It was an exciting development, however Dacho was nowhere near elated. It was such a bad feeling, he says, explaining that he was thinking of the thousands of other refugees still waiting for their lucky break.

They are also qualified and have long years of experience and they are sitting there, doing nothing. I was happy because I finally got a job but, the other side of it, [I] felt so bad.

Dachos second stroke of good fortune came 12 months ago when he attended a networking event for refugees with IT skills Techfugees Hackathon Australia and met Anna Robson, who became his cofounder and the chief executive of Refugee Talent.

Robson had spent 10 months working at the Nauru detention centre as an adult recreation officer and the two of them bonded over their desire to help refugees get work experience. Robson decided to join forces with Dacho to build an online platform to connect refugees to employers. The site launched in February.

The third time fortune smiled upon them was in March this year when Robson, moonlighting as an Uber driver, started chatting about her venture with an investor she was taking to the airport.

That passenger was Jason Yat-Sen Li, thechairman of Vantage Asia Holdings, a diversified investment group with offices in Beijing and Sydney and interests in real estate, mining, financial services and technology. Li is also a former Labor candidate for the seat of Bennelong.

I asked her what she did when she wasnt driving an Uber, says Li, who was moved by what she had to say about her work with Save the Children on Nauru.

The thing that caught me the most, apart from the awful things she saw there, was her observation that the vast majority of the people who were locked up there were highly skilled. They were doctors and engineers and software developers.

Li became an investor in Refugee Talent, offering Dacho and Robson free space in his Sydney Surry Hills office, business start-up advice and introduction to his business connections.

The story and the serendipity of it appealed, Li says. It is a really nice thing in the innovation space where one can do something that reflects ones values and hopefully do well out of it as well. We do think it has the potential to be a viable business.

They sit with us in our office so, whenever they have questions or problems, they come to us. I chair their board and have helped them to put together a small board of directors. I have helped them raise a little money to get them started and they use some of our in-house resources, like an in-house designer.

Refugee Talent now has 50 employers on board, has 160 clients and has placed 15 in jobs in its first eight months. The company has expanded to Melbourne and is looking at other states.

Dacho says the duo never expected things to happen so fast, thinking it would take two to three years to get to the point where they are now at 11 months, with both being employed full-time by the business.

I am so lucky because I have these three moments in Australia, he says, referring to his lucky breaks.

His advice to other refugees would be to take the initiative, rather than depending on case workers and assistance organisations. They should also get Australian qualifications as soon as possible and try to get any job (to get local experience), using refugee-assistance channels or applying direct to employers.

And drawing upon his experience, they should also make the effort to meet as many people as they can to build up a network.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/nov/03/how-a-syrian-refugee-found-success-by-helping-other-refugees


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