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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


The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/05/hidden-figures-black-female-scientists-african-americans-margot-lee-shetterly-space-race


Genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in Florida Keys by spring

In fight against Zika, British company Oxitec must seek approval from FDA for insects release into the wild following Monroe County referendum

Genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys as early as this spring, an official said, after voters in Monroe County, Florida, approved the experiment in a referendum on election day.

The British company Oxitec will still need to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval, as the original location for the trial Key Haven voted against the trial. The experiment could be the first time a genetically modified animal is released into the wild in the United States.

We decided we have so many other options in the county that we are going to pick another site in the county, and not worry about Key Haven for the trial, said Phil Goodman, a commissioner with the Florida Keys mosquito control district and longtime supporter of the trial.

The male mosquitoes modified by Oxitec are designed to control Aedes aegypti mosquito populations by mating with wild females, and passing a gene to their offspring that stops them from reaching maturity. Only male mosquitoes are to be released (one out of every 1,000 could be female). Male mosquitoes do not bite.

The mosquitoes are meant to undermine the same mosquitoes that spread Zika, a virus that can cause birth defects in children born to infected mothers. The virus ravaged Brazil before arriving this spring in Puerto Rico, an American territory, and then parts of Miami.

Oxitec has billed the mosquitoes as a way to control populations without poisonous insecticides. However, opposition to the trial was widespread in Key Haven, a small, upscale community near Key West. Just 35% of Key Haven residents supported the measure, whereas 58% of voters supported it in Monroe County as a whole.

Though Oxitec plans to abandon the Key Haven location, countywide support means the company can look for a new location to run the trial in Monroe County.

While we did not win over every community in the Keys, Oxitec appreciates the support received from the community, Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry said in a release. He said the company, is prepared to take the next steps with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board to trial its environmentally-friendly and non-persisting mosquito control solution.

Some opposition also came from the broader Florida Keys community. Mila de Mier, a real estate agent in Key West, said she planned on personally shepherding lawsuits against the trial should it go forward elsewhere in Monroe County.

I wasnt surprised, I wasnt very surprised at all, said de Mier about the referendum result. De Mier is one of the most fervent opponents of Oxitec. She and many others contend that the impacts of such a release are not well enough studied to justify the risk of releasing the animals.

Oxitec has long portrayed itself as a community-oriented company. Their spokesperson, Derric Nimmo, previously told the Guardian he personally went door-to-door to try to convince Key Haven residents of the value of the experiment.

But during the election, the company took more drastic measures, funding a political committee called Florida Keys Safety Alliance to promote its product, Florida Keys News reported.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/26/zika-virus-genetically-modified-mosquitoes-florida


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