When we asked environmental specialists about their biggest environmental compliance reporting challenges, we were somewhat surprised to hear these two response:
- Completing electronic and online reporting forms.
- Government websites are very “unfriendly”.
Although it’s no shock that government websites aren’t always the easiest to use, the general attitude is that doing things online is always easier.
But is this the case for environmental compliance reporting?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Canadian Ministry of Environment offer (or require) electronic reporting for the major environmental compliance reports, including the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS), and the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).
For better or for worse, electronic reporting is becoming increasingly mandatory for more and more reports.
All environmental compliance reporting will be done online, and this will become a reality sooner than you think.
Here’s our take on electronic reporting’s pros and cons:
Pro: Protection from Data Entry Errors
The best e-reporting systems for compliance reporting come with on the fly data verification that can quickly identify when you’ve typed information that doesn’t match the rest of your data.
This feature can be a true life saver if you’ve experienced small (but costly) data entry errors in the past.
It’s no secret that even a small entry error can throw off all your emission calculations and possibly jeopardize your entire facility’s compliance situation. Having any type of safeguard in place is definitely a great benefit that you simply cannot get with any pen and paper reporting.
Con: Mandatory E-Reporting Isn’t Always Available 24/7
If a certain environmental compliance report absolutely requires you to do online reporting, it does place certain restrictions on when you can work on your reports.
Now, most work places will provide their environmental managers with a reliable internet connection, but there’s no guarantee that a technical glitch, a hardware error, or unexpected website maintenance won’t interfere with your preferred reporting schedule.
These online reporting tools constantly are getting updated and revised – which is a good thing in the long run – but that does mean the website will occasionally be unavailable and you’ll need to research what changes were made each year.
This could even include changes to where you access the online forms.
Pro: Undeniably Faster
There is no contest when it comes to speed. You can enter in all your data and submit the completed report to the appropriate regulators with the just the click of a button.
And it’s hard to deny that electronic submission is more convenient than any other option.
Even if you struggle with completing online forms, electronic environmental compliance reporting submissions cannot be beat.
Con: Less Flexibility for Alternate Deadlines & Drafts
Being able to have temporary drafts of your report is a useful way to manage reports you can’t finish all in one session - or if you need to go back and double check something before you submit.
Online systems will typically allow you to save and revisit your report, but not in the same way as having a rough paper-draft of your report that you can take with you and review at absolutely any time.
In addition, we always recommend that you set early internal deadlines for your mandatory environmental reports so you’ll have time to review the results.
But unless the e-reporting tool can save and store drafts of reports, you’ll simply end up doing the work twice.
Pro: Easier to Correct Errors After Submission
Just in case you’ve made a mistake in your compliance report, electronic reporting makes it significantly easier to go back and correct your errors. Unlike paper reporting, which is often completely out of your hands once you’ve sent it in, an electronic reporting file can be retrieved and altered relatively easily.
By correcting your mistakes as soon as you recognize them, you not only protect yourself from getting hit with noncompliance fines, but you also demonstrate to your auditors that environmental stewardship is a top priority.
A Fine Balance
Ultimately, electronic reporting has all the benefits of using faster and more convenient technology to replace manually error-prone processes, including built-in QA/QC features.
It also limits the "where, how, and when" of doing your reporting. If you have unique reporting deadlines or processes, you could find e-reporting to be restrictive.
Here’s our solution: by using environmental compliance software that allows you to export your own internal reports into an e-reporting format, you still get to decide when and how you do your own reporting.
You can then simply export and submit your report using the regulator’s own online system.
It’s the best of both worlds.
About the Author: Alex Chamberlain is a writer and blogger who regularly contributes to ERA Environmental Management Solutions' blog. You can find Alex on Google+, LinkedIn & ERA's Environmental Compliance Blog
(Image credit: bixentro)