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What is Environmental Compliance?

August 20, 2019

Environmental compliance is essential to the viability of your business. The consequences of overlooking environmental regulations can be severe. But as important as it is, PM Environmental knows that environmental compliance isn’t your company’s primary focus. Fortunately, it’s ours.

PM Environmental advises companies large and small on the full spectrum of environmental regulations. Experienced environmental, health and safety managers consult with PM on ever-changing requirements. PM also helps owners and managers with little or no compliance expertise understand their unique environmental requirements and develop and execute customized compliance plans. 

Here, two PM compliance experts, J. Adam Patton, C.H.M.M., National Manager of Site Investigation Services, and Hannah Arnett, Environmental Compliance Coordinator, highlight some common issues faced by clients, and summarize a few of the best practices they recommend. 

Their suggestions can be framed in two acronyms – one to help understand the main categories of regulations, and the other to outline the key steps in developing a sound compliance plan.

The primary categories of environmental compliance:  W-A-S-H  

Water

The most common environmental regulations impacting commercial property owners are those governing water – in particular, stormwater. Regulations vary by state and even by community, but in general, regular inspections are required to ensure that a facility is not discharging pollutants to navigable waters of the state.

“Michigan, for example, requires quarterly inspections, including both visual assessments and even the possibility of water sampling, conducted by certified stormwater inspectors,” said Patton. “An organization can either designate one of its employees to receive training and certification or contract an organization like ours to perform the inspections.”

Additional regulations govern the handling of water used in specific manufacturing processes. Some processes, such as coating processes, require capturing water in an internal water treatment system before discharging it into the municipality’s sanitary sewer. “In those cases, a water discharge permit is required by the city, town or township’s water treatment authority,” said Arnett. “Municipalities differ on the duration of their permits – we’ve seen them range from one to five years – and the type and frequency of water sampling they require.” 

Air

Companies that utilize equipment with the potential to release substances into the air are also regulated to limit the quantity of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) that can be discharged. Unlike water discharge permits which are renewed on a regular basis, air permits for minor sources of VOCs and/or HAPs are often issued for specific equipment, such as an oven, furnace, or coating line, and do not expire. When equipment is modified or replaced, new or modified permits must be issued.  

“In addition to equipment permits, some larger manufacturing facilities, which qualify as major sources may be required to obtain a Renewable Operating Permit which governs the overall air quality of their facility,” added Patton.  

Spills

Businesses that handle substances like oil or other chemicals may be required to develop and maintain a plan for how to react in the event of a spill. Called Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) plan, it contains maps to indicate the location of storage containers, procedures for alerting employees and regulatory agencies, and steps to contain spills.  

For example, federal regulations specify that any facility with an aggregated above ground oil storage capacity greater than 1,320 gallons or a completely buried storage capacity greater than 42,000 gallons and a reasonable expectation of an oil discharge into or upon navigable waters of the U.S. or adjoining shorelines must prepare and implement a SPCC plan.

“Michigan has a separate Pollution Incident Prevention Plan (PIPP) that sets thresholds for not only oil, but salts and hundreds of other chemicals,” said Arnett. “A company handling any of these substances must prepare and implement this plan and keep it on file at the facility in case of a spill or inspection.”

“Regulators aren’t the only ones to require that a company think through an action plan for potential chemical spills,” Patton added. “We’re seeing more and more banks require spill plans as a prerequisite for financing.”  

Hazardous materials

How a company handles the disposal of hazardous waste is another area of environmental regulation. Compliance requirements depend upon which category a facility falls into: 

Large quantity generators – numerous requirements apply to facilities that produce more than 2,200 pounds of hazardous materials per month, including:

• They must have an EPA ID number

• They can accumulate hazardous wastes onsite for no more than 90 days before disposal

• They are required to provide employee training

• They must have a contingency plan and emergency procedures in place

• They must track hazardous waste shipments using manifests

• They must provide biennial (every other year) reporting 

In general, small quantity generators have some, but fewer tracking and reporting requirements.

Conditionally exempt quantity generators such as research laboratories may only generate tiny amounts of hazardous materials (less than 2.2 pounds in a month). These facilities are not required to have an EPA ID number, or to meet any of the other requirements mentioned above for large quantity generators. But they are limited to accumulating no more than 200 gallons of hazardous wastes on site at any time.

Building a successful environmental compliance program:  P-O-R-T

Prepare

Identifying which federal, state and local environmental regulations impact your organization is the first step in developing a strategy to comply with them. PM Environmental’s environmental compliance audit reviews your entire operation and identifies the regulatory requirements that apply to you. 

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Arnett. “Even firms with experienced environmental health and safety managers can benefit from our compliance audit. We conduct a site inspection, review current and planned compliance practices, and make suggestions on developing or improving compliance systems.”

“For purchasers of existing facilities, an environmental compliance audit can be combined with a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA),” explained Patton. “That allows a new owner to hit the ground running with a ‘punch list’ of environmental considerations to address.”

Learn more about the Phase 1 ESA here

Organize

Patton and Arnett strongly recommend organizing around your specific regulatory requirements and designing a customized environmental compliance plan. That includes designating a person or team responsible for compliance, creating a checklist of requirements, and developing a compliance calendar or dashboard to track permit renewals, testing and reporting.

A major step that is often overlooked is to make sure that at least one designated manager carefully reads and understands the organization’s permits, said Arnett. “When new permits are issued, they often contain minor – or not-so-minor – regulation changes. Unanticipated updates, like requiring a new analyte to be tested for or a new inspection requirement, can trip up even the best plans if they are not reviewed and updated accordingly.”

Record

An essential element of environmental compliance is keeping records to demonstrate that requirements have been met. Proper and timely documentation ensures you’ll be ready for both planned and unplanned inspections. “And remember, your records are only as reliable as your document management system,” said Patton. “We recommend scanning paper logs or reports to maintain a reliable, accessible electronic archive.”

Teach

While an individual or team may be designated to manage environmental compliance, it’s important to educate your entire organization about your environmental policies and procedures. Some employee education may even be mandatory. “For facilities handling certain chemicals, the U.S Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that employees be provided with safety data sheets and spill prevention plans,” explained Arnett.

Partner with PM 

“Getting and keeping your company in compliance with environmental regulations is good ecological stewardship,” said Patton and Arnett. “Avoiding the penalties of non-compliance is good business. We help clients do both.”