Big data: Maps and clicks help the public advance environmental objectives

6 minute read

A worker monitors the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) in Sao Sebastiao do Uatuma in the middle of the Amazon forest in Amazonas state January 9, 2015. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

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February 2, 2022 - Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, Lily Chinn and Anne Carpenter, of Baker Botts LLP, discuss "environmental big data" available to companies, governments and the public on environmental impacts on communities.

Today, with a few clicks and swipes, any person can view dozens of publicly available databases or resources with detailed information about a community, including the air and water quality; the number of companies with permits to release various substances to the environment; incidents and accidents involving those companies, and related penalties paid by them; and even the last inspection by a regulator. Sometimes this information is easy to understand and put in context, but, at other times, it requires regulatory and technical knowledge to understand the information.

A vast amount of information is publicly available through this "environmental big data," and community groups are empowered more than ever to use that data to support environmental improvement, positive community investment, and better overall community health. With this backdrop, companies need to be thoughtful about how environmental data is managed, including the legal benefits and risks of disclosure.

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While environmental big data puts wind in the advocacy sails of citizens and community activists, it also offers companies an opportunity to strategically manage in-house data and information to thoughtfully and accurately reflect a company's environmental impacts.

Shareholders and other investors are closely analyzing publicly available data to assess company performance, and there is a heightened expectation that companies will take tangible steps to reduce environmental impacts from operations. This requires understanding local community demographics and impacts, as well as supply chain and downstream corporate impacts, particularly in light of the Environmental, Social, Governance ("ESG") movement. What that environmental data shows, including the inferences and conclusions that may be drawn from it, can help corporate leadership to proactively anticipate and mitigate potential liability, and identify areas of opportunity for investment.

The significance of this environmental big data is not lost on governmental agencies. The Biden administration has committed itself to making innovative use of big data, including demographic information, such as household income, hospital admission rates, and environmental emissions to support policy, funding and enforcement initiatives focused on communities that have been historically marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.

For the administration, big data is even coming from the sky, as EPA announced on Jan. 25, 2022, that it plans to enhance its air monitoring capacity using its ASPECT plane equipped with a suite of sensors and software.

The administration is also relying on existing and new databases to accomplish its goals, including:

EJSCREEN Database. One of the most prominent environmental databases is the EJSCREEN (Environmental Justice) Mapping Tool, run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"), which was first made publicly available in 2016. EJSCREEN presents data from other federal databases for 11 different environmental indicators focused on exposure and/or proximity to pollutants, risk or hazards and six demographic indicators including income, race and education. Graphically, the data can be viewed as separate or overlapping layers. The EJSCREEN tool allows a user to see how different environmental burdens impact various communities. Notably, however, the mapping tool does not support analysis of the cumulative impact of those burdens on a specific community. EPA, in the Biden administration, has made a commitment to increase data monitoring, train staff on EJSCREEN, and facilitate data sharing and related enforcement across 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 provide related EJSCREEN community data and demographic profiles.

Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool. The Biden administration has focused on leveraging existing data contained in EJSCREEN, ECHO and other federal databases with the development of a new geospatial tool called the Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool. The mapping tool will integrate broader data sets to better identify overall environmental and climate risks for communities that have been historically marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. The tool, which was originally supposed to be rolled out last year, is still in development but is intended to facilitate various goals of the administration, including funding priorities and enforcement.

State and local governments have also made a treasure trove of environmental and social data available. California's own mapping tool CalEnviroScreen, which EJSCREEN was modeled after, contains state data and, unlike its federal counterpart, provides a cumulative impact score for each census tract, making it easy to identify disadvantaged communities for investment opportunities and enhanced enforcement under state law.

Other states have similar geospatial tools, including Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Similarly, community organizations and non-governmental organizations have created public repositories containing locally gathered or compiled information. These organizations train employees and volunteers to collect data, including water, air, and soil samples.

These databases can be important resources for various stakeholders, including companies, to direct resources, prioritize areas of concern, and spur regulatory action:

PurpleAir provides affordable air monitors for use by citizen scientists to collect real-time air quality data and share that data using a digital map accessible on the organization's website. This site has been widely used during the California wildfire season to track air quality.

Bloomwatch allows citizens to upload photos of possible harmful algal blooms with the goal of protecting recreational users and bringing compromised waters to regulators' attention.

Propublica provides an interactive map, which relies on existing EPA data, to identify areas with significant emissions and associated cancer risk, as calculated by the organization.

Collectively, these databases are designed to be easy tools for users, whether corporate, government or individual, to understand practical implications of environmental big data and take informed action. It is worth noting that, for companies, big data can be used to inform corporate ESG goals and reporting. See "ESG Trends: Improving and Standardizing Disclosure," Reuters Legal News.

Overall, for any entity in today's data-saturated world, it is important to understand that navigating and leveraging big data are fundamental to achieving strategic goals.

Nadira Clarke, a partner at the firm, contributed to this article.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Alexandra Dapolito Dunn is a partner in Baker Botts' Environmental Safety & Incident Response group. She is based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at alexandra.dunn@bakerbotts.com.

Lily Chinn is a partner in Baker Botts' Environmental Safety & Incident Response group. She is based in San Francisco. She can be reached at lily.chinn@bakerbotts.com.

Anne Carpenter is a partner in Baker Botts' Environmental Safety & Incident Response group. She is based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at anne.carpenter@bakerbotts.com.