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‘We are afraid’: Erin Brockovich pollutant linked to global electric car boom | Pollution

A Guardian investigation into nickel mining and the electric vehicle industry has found evidence that a source of drinking water close to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines is contaminated with unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium (Cr6), the cancer-causing chemical more widely known for its role in the Erin Brockovich story and film.

The investigation also found evidence suggesting elevated levels of lung infections among people living close to the mine.

Recent years have seen a race between mining companies to gain control of the world’s largest nickel reserves in Indonesia.

Nickel, an essential component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, could bring transformational wealth to a country where Covid has pushed the number of people in poverty up to 10.19%.

Yet people living on the remote Obi Island, which has recently become home to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines, just want clean and safe water.

Unlike other minerals used to power EVs such as cobalt and lithium – which have been linked to environmental damage and human rights abuses –nickel’s supply chain has so far gone largely unscrutinised.

Map of Obi Island

The mining companies operational on Obi Island say their works pose no threat to local communities. Yet in the village of Kawasi, people are scared.

One villager, Richard*, says that since the mine arrived the water has become dangerous to drink.

“In the past, before there was a company, even though we lived without electricity, we were safe. Now we are afraid,” says Richard*. Water samples taken by the Guardian near Kawasi and tested at government-certified laboratories suggest high levels of contamination from hexavalent chromium (Cr6), a cancer-causing chemical.

The villagers also claim that since the mine arrived, people have been falling sick.

Children play on Kawasi beach as building work for a mining company port takes place along the shore.
Children play on Kawasi beach as building work for a mining company port takes place along the shore. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

The Guardian was told by the village midwife clinic of more than 900 cases of potentially deadly acute respiratory infections (ARI) among the approximately 4,000 residents of Kawasi in 2020. More than half of the cases were reported to be in newborns or toddlers aged four and under.

According to Indonesian health officials, the ARI prevalence in Kawasi was just under 20% in 2020, compared with a national average of 9%. Aside from the midwife clinic there was no active local health centre in the village when the Guardian visited.

“The difference [since the mining started] is enormous. The beach was still clean, the sea was not muddy like this and not red yet. People still fished in front of their houses,” says a nurse who has lived in the village since 2009, before the mine started operating. “The trend of [higher] ARI cases began at the same time as [mining] exploration also began,” adds the nurse.

“I keep thinking: is there any future for the children?” says Maria*, who grew up in the village.


Given its extreme remoteness, it is unsurprising few activists or journalists have visited Obi Island to talk to residents until now. From the capital, Jakarta, it takes a three-and-half hour flight, an overnight boat and another two hours at sea to reach Kawasi’s port.

A mine employee shows a photo of raw nickel.
A mine employee shows a photo of raw nickel. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

The plywood buildings and sporadic streets lights in Kawasi couldn’t feel more distant from glitzy city showrooms acclaiming fossil fuel-free travel.

As you disembark you can hear the constant creak and crash of cranes as they distribute their loads around the busy mining operations. The $1bn site, owned by the Indonesia-based Harita Group and China’s Lygend Mining, digs and processes nickel for use in EV batteries.

The Chinese battery component producer GEM has signed an agreement to purchase nickel from the company, PT Halmahera Persada Lygend. GEM supplies battery components to many of the world’s leading EV battery manufacturers, including Chinese-owned CATL, which controls about 30% of the global battery market.

The ultimate beneficiaries are likely to be many of the most well-known EV brands, with nickel from these mines used to produce batteries that could end up in cars sold by Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen (VW).

Booming nickel prices and a “battery arms race” have seen a rush to develop mines but there are fears that regulatory oversight has failed to keep up with the pace of development.

“They [the Indonesian government] are trying to remove red tape to make the industry more attractive for investment, but without proper environmental assessments, it could be risky given the way the industry is heading,” says Indonesian nickel mining expert Steven Brown.

Land and forest around the Kawasi village have been occupied by the mining company.
Land and forest around Kawasi are occupied by the mining company. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

Holding mining companies and the supply chain to account for pollution is difficult, says Matthew Baird, an environmental lawyer based in south-east Asia, especially when there could be multiple sources for the contamination.

“These big mining operations are very much in areas that are very inaccessible and where they are operating as a de facto local government ‘company town’,” he says. “Mining companies may blame other problems and that all may be correct, but because they are there, there is a likelihood they are contributing to the problem.”


Near the village of Kawasi, water samples collected by the Guardian from a fountain less than 200 metres from the mining site and tested at government-certified laboratories suggest high levels of contamination from carcinogenic Cr6: 60 parts per billion (ppb). The maximum contaminant level allowed by law in Indonesia is 50 ppb.

Cr6 can cause liver damage, reproductive problems and developmental harm when ingested or inhaled. Long-term exposure through drinking water has also been linked to stomach cancer. Evidence has shown that Cr6 in drinking water can be a result of industrial processes.

A fountain for household water.
A fountain for household water. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

The fountain the Guardian’s samples were taken from comes out of rocks above Kawasi; villagers claim it is their only source of water for drinking, bathing and washing fruit and vegetables.

“The impacts of this [type of] mining are persistent, long term and in some ways subtle. It’s not like a large catastrophic failure. These are Erin Brockovich long-term, persistent and subtle impacts that the regulatory system is not necessarily equipped to deal with,” says Baird.

In response to questions from the Guardian, Halmahera Persada Lygend said ARI was common in developing countries, especially in tropical regions. It said the solution included adequate nutrition for children from the time they are in the womb, proper hygiene within homes and improved awareness through education.

Canals made by the company drain away water and mud from mining activities. This canal runs through a residential area and into the sea.
Canals made by the company drain away water and mud from mining activities. This canal runs through a residential area and into the sea. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

In response to the allegations of unsafe levels of Cr6, the company said tests it had conducted on Kawasi’s spring water from 2013 to 2021 showed that it met the water quality standards set by the government, with results of Cr6 content in the range of 5 to 40 ppb. It said its tests had showed there was no Cr6 discharge from its system or impact on the water quality of the Kawasi springs.

Brown says mines in Indonesia are only required to check for chromium (Cr6 and Cr6+) once a month and are probably not yet fully aware of the risks.

Halmahera Persada Lygend said that the positive and negative impacts of its projects had been assessed in an environmental impact analysis, which has been reviewed and approved by the government. It also said provincial and district environmental offices regularly conducted site inspections to review company operations and take samples for analysis if needed.

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Mercedes-Benz said it took the allegations seriously and was immediately contacting its direct supplier to clarify the issues raised, even though it does not buy nickel directly. VW was contacted for comment.

* Names have been changed to protect identity

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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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From Retail To Transport: How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Is Changing Every Corner Of The Economy

How A.I. Is Changing The Economy

The high profile race to enhance their search products has underscored the importance of artificial intelligence to Google and Microsoft – and the rest of the economy, too. Two of the world’s largest tech companies announced plans for AI-enhanced search this month, ratcheting up a tussle for supremacy in the artificial intelligence space. However, the debut of Google’s new chatbot, Bard, was scuppered when an error appeared, knocking $163bn (£137bn) off the parent company Alphabet’s share price. The stock’s plunge showed how crucial investors think AI could be to Google’s future.

However, the increasing prominence of AI has implications for every corner of the economy. From retail to transport, here’s how AI promises to usher in a wave of change across industries.

Farming

Monitoring weather patterns, managing pests and disease, working out the need for extra irrigation, or even which crops to grow where: many farmers believe agriculture is fertile ground for artificial intelligence.

Many food producers are using AI to collect and analyse data in their efforts to improve productivity and profitability.

AI’s capacity for combining and analysing large datasets is already supplying farmers with real-time information on how to improve the health of their crops and increase yields. Drones and in-ground sensors can play a role in observing growing crops and soil conditions across hundreds of acres of land, including checking whether they need more water, fertiliser or herbicide and whether they are being affected by disease or destroyed by animals.

Ali Capper, who grows apples and hops at her family farm on the border of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, has invested in new technology, including automated orchard sprayers, to use alongside the digital soil mapping she has employed since 2017.

Ali Capper inspects the blossom on her apple trees at Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire
Ali Capper sees AI advantages for the environment. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

“Many agri-tech innovations will help us to be kinder to the farmed environment as well as more efficient and profitable,” Capper said.

In the face of labour shortages, especially acute since Brexit, farmers have long hoped that advances in robotics – “agribots” – will help to make sure crops get picked on time. A lack of workers led to £60m of food wasted in 2022 alone, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

While four-armed robots, designed for the delicate work of picking soft fruits, are being developed, robots with the dexterity of the human hand, capable of picking at speed without damaging fruit such as raspberries, may be a decade away from widespread use. Nonetheless, automation has already changed some of the most laborious jobs in farming, from drilling seeds to spraying and watering crops.

Media companies have embraced machine learning to boost subscriptions and advertising and to help make decisions about what stories to promote.

News organisations are hiring data scientists on six-figure salaries to pull together data to track customers and guide them towards particular products, while also providing workers with tools to take the grunt work out of finding and writing stories.

Lisa Gibbs, the director of news partnerships at the Associated Press, said in a London School of Economics study that her organisation could “find news faster and break news faster” with the aid of AI.

Media organisations are using data analysts to create targeted content that generates higher subscriptions and advertising revenues.

Energy

There are possible AI applications in every corner of the energy industry: from predicting and identifying faults at power plants to using weather forecasts to plan offshore windfarm projects.

With tight margins in a sector where almost 30 companies have gone bust during the energy crisis, retail energy suppliers are expected to increase the use of AI to cut down call times. Chatbots are used to ask basic questions before customers speak to a human adviser.

Ultimately, suppliers envisage AI will play a central role in future “smart grids”, allowing supply and demand to be more closely aligned, with a new generation of devices from smart meters and electric vehicles to solar panels and heat pumps able to improve efficiency. Jobs for engineers, meter readers and supply analysts are most under threat.

AI is also valuable to track carbon emissions. Boston Consulting Group has estimated that applying AI to multinational companies’ sustainability plans could be worth $1.3tn to $2.6tn through additional revenues and cost savings by 2030. Late last year, the government launched a £1.5m programme to study the use of AI to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing veterans know all too well how automation can sweep through an industry. In 2019, the UK’s Office for National Statistics said almost two-thirds of metalworking machine operatives were at risk.

An intelligent production base at Great Wall Motors in south-west China.
An intelligent production base at Great Wall Motors in south-west China. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Part of the automation drive is for efficiency. Machine learning algorithms are already being deployed on the burgeoning piles of data produced within big factories for “predictive maintenance” – replacing parts before they fail and potentially requiring fewer technicians.

But the rapid rise of generative artificial intelligence suggests it will not only be people on factory lines who will be affected. Generative AI is already being used to design products much more quickly, test them virtually as a “digital twin”, and manufacture them much more quickly. Combined with innovations such as 3D printing, this could lower development costs dramatically and would require fewer engineers in aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics.

One logical end is something like the Star Trek replicator, a bot that designs and makes whatever its user desires from a text prompt – without human involvement.

Government

Running the country means the government collects vast amounts of personal and business data, all of which could be plugged into artificial intelligence and machine learning systems to improve the efficiency of policymaking and delivery of services. Everything from bin collections, call centres and analysis of data to prioritise spending could be targeted for improvement. However, it is not without challenges and controversy – not least for how algorithms are held to account.

The former head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, has said greater use of AI and automation will probably lead to a reduction in headcount.

Some councils are building computer models using personal data to help predict child abuse and intervene before it can happen, while Blackpool council is using AI-powered satellite images to help fix potholes.

There is concern in government that AI systems can build in human biases, risking the perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination. Meanwhile, relying on computer models has stoked fear in the past that some public priorities are overlooked, including investment in the north of England and green projects.

More use of AI could improve efficiency but authorities will need to carefully check its effects. As the postwar US president Harry Truman said: “When you have an efficient government, you have a dictatorship.”

Transport

Transport workers have stubbornly held on to their jobs since the first driverless trains were tested on the tube – a development that was met with “Robots take over” headlines six decades ago. However, they are still regarded as most vulnerable in the long term, according to a 2021 report by PwC for the business department forecasting that proportionately the biggest job losses in the next 20 years would come in the transport sector.

Nonetheless, drivers are far from expendable, and are demanding high salaries whether operating HGVs, buses or trains – even as the first autonomous buses are trialled in Scotland and Milton Keynes. Recent dreams of imminent robotaxis have yet to become widespread reality, and Uber says its London drivers earn £34 an hour. Pilotless planes are technically possible, although few might fancy them after Boeing’s software-led 737 Max disasters.

A National Highways van on a motorway.
A National Highways van films passing vehicles to catch those holding a mobile phone or not wearing a seatbelt. The footage is analysed using AI. Photograph: National Highways/PA

Transport for London uses AI to help traffic flow and forecast disruption, while train operators have used simulators or digital twins to check train paths, platforms and timetables. The Rail Safety and Standards Board is working with academics to use machine learning from high-resolution video to tackle leaves on the line. Similar AI and video projects in Australia could teach driverless trains to recognise a green light – or whether the movement on a remote track is an encroaching human or a nearby kangaroo.

But the next iterations of AI could be profoundly political, as the current rail dispute in Great Britain underlines. Network Rail is hoping to shed more than 1,000 jobs, arguing that automation could create a more efficient and safe inspection regime by using data to predict faults.

Financial services

The financial services sector is at greater risk of job losses from AI than other sectors, according to government forecasts, but experts say this is partly a matter of catch-up.

“Other industries have already made these cuts,” said Sarah Kocianski, an independent fintech consultant.

For example, banks and wealth managers will need fewer staff to onboard new clients as they automate more of their customer background checks and will rely more heavily on AI to detect and flag potential fraud and money-laundering risks.

They will also be able to feed new guidelines from regulators into those machine learning programmes, to flag any potential breaches or shortfalls in the company’s systems, rather than relying on humans to conduct an initial review.

But these systems will still require human oversight, not only to build and programme the technology but also to conduct additional checks and sort out more complex problems.

“A critical risk is that firms succumb to the temptation to trust AI to make smarter lending or insurance decisions without understanding the reasoning process, and over-rely on the AI system without properly stress-testing its fitness for purpose,” said Karishma Brahmbhatt, a data and technology lawyer at Allen & Overy.

Alongside booming demand for tech staff to build and monitor AI programmes, firms will be competing for higher-skilled staff who can do forensic work if they suspect fraud or error, or provide bespoke support to customers. “You need more tailored people but you need fewer people,” Kocianski said.

Retail

Almost a third of retail jobs could be displaced by technology by 2030 compared with 2017 levels, as automated tills, warehouse robotics and AI-based planning tools affect the UK’s biggest employer.

A robot and delivery drone working in an automatic warehouse.
A robot and delivery drone working in an automated warehouse. Photograph: Scharfsinn/Alamy

The most obvious change to any shopper is the rise in the use of self-checkouts and self-scanning systems in supermarkets in the last five years. Change was supercharged by the pandemic when labour became more expensive and difficult to find while shoppers became wary of interactions with staff.

Analysts at the advisory firm McKinsey have predicted that the number of cashiers could almost halve between 2017 and 2030 as these technologies are rolled out. Bryan Roberts at the industry body IGD said the majority of sales in most UK supermarkets are now rung up on self-scanning or automated tills.

The rise of labour costs has also led non-food retailers to give the technology a go. The Japanese-owned clothing chain Uniqlo introduced a system linked to radio frequency identification tags a few years ago.

The next step is the checkout-free store, led by Amazon Fresh, where cameras and shelf sensors mean that shoppers’ purchases are automatically registered on an app on their phone enabling them to just walk out and pay later.

Technology doesn’t stop at the till. Retailers are experimenting with robotic or AI-powered systems to spot gaps on shelves – with Marks & Spencer trialling a system that uses fixed cameras. Others have experimented with Dalek-type machines that cruise up and down the aisles.

Electronic labels on shelves, so prices can be changed automatically from head office, alongside AI-led technology to guide buying decisions and more robotics to pick and pack products in warehouses will also affect thousands of jobs.


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Ways Small & Medium-Sized Businesses Can Hire Big Tech Talent

In response to mounting financial concerns, tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have recently implemented significant staff cuts. This has prompted industry leaders to reevaluate their hiring practices, recognizing the limitations of Big Tech’s ability to weather challenging economic times.

While the tech industry’s overall stability is assured, the combination of a declining economy and a previous surge in hiring has resulted in substantial job losses. However, this situation also presents an opportunity for small businesses and start-ups to tap into a pool of available tech experts.

To capitalize on this unique scenario, small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners must act swiftly to gain a competitive advantage over larger companies and attract highly skilled candidates.

In this article, John Elf, Technology Contributor at ‘Voice of EU’ and Head of Marketing at Vibertron Technologies, provides insights into some simple but effective strategies for attracting talent in a candidate-heavy market.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can leverage consulting services to attract the best talent, just like big tech companies do. Here’s how SMBs can make use of consulting services to enhance their talent acquisition efforts:

1. Talent Acquisition Strategy Development: SMBs can engage consulting firms specializing in talent acquisition and HR strategies to help them develop a comprehensive talent acquisition strategy. These consultants can assess the organization’s needs, identify talent gaps, and devise effective recruitment and sourcing strategies tailored to the SMB’s specific industry and requirements. This strategic approach ensures that the SMB is targeting the right candidates and maximizing its resources.

2. Employer Branding and Positioning: Consulting firms experienced in employer branding can assist SMBs in developing a strong employer brand that resonates with their target talent pool. They can help SMBs articulate their unique value proposition, culture, and growth opportunities, ensuring that the organization stands out as an attractive employer. These consultants can also provide guidance on how to effectively communicate the employer brand across various channels to attract the best talent.

3. Recruitment Process Optimization: Recruitment service provider can help SMBs, same as LCEs, optimize their recruitment processes, making them more efficient and effective. Consultants can review and streamline the entire hiring process, from job postings and candidate screening to interview techniques and selection methodologies. By improving the candidate experience and ensuring a smooth and timely process, SMBs can enhance their reputation as an employer of choice.

4. Candidate Sourcing and Evaluation: Consulting firms specializing in talent acquisition can assist SMBs in sourcing and evaluating candidates. They can leverage their networks and resources to identify top talent and conduct thorough assessments, including skill evaluations, cultural fit analysis, and background checks. By leveraging external expertise, SMBs can access a broader candidate pool and make well-informed hiring decisions.

5. Compensation and Benefits Consulting: Attracting and retaining top talent often requires competitive compensation and benefits packages. SMBs can engage consulting firms that specialize in compensation and benefits to ensure their offerings align with industry standards and meet the expectations of high-caliber candidates. These consultants can provide insights into market trends, salary benchmarks, and innovative benefit options, enabling SMBs to remain competitive in talent acquisition.

6. Training and Development Programs: SMBs can leverage consulting services to design and implement training and development programs. These programs not only help attract talent but also contribute to employee retention and growth.

Consultants can identify skill gaps, design customized training modules, and provide guidance on employee development initiatives, ensuring that SMBs create a culture of continuous learning and professional advancement.

By utilizing consulting services in talent acquisition, SMBs can access specialized expertise, best practices, and industry insights that are typically associated with larger companies. This approach enables SMBs to compete for top talent on a more level playing field, enhancing their ability to attract and retain the best candidates.


By John Elf

John Elf is Head of Marketing at Vibertron GYPOTech, and an Honorary Contributor at ‘Voice of EU’. A version of this article has already been published.


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