As the year 2012 wraps up, we decided to turn to ERA’s team of compliance specialists and environmental scientists for advice on starting the new year on track so that a perfect annual compliance record becomes an achievable goal.
And the most popular piece of advice was: make friends with your local environmental regulator.
Often, environmental managers view their local environmental compliance auditor as being the villain, looking for some tiny infraction to punish and fine them for. This perception sets environmental regulators up to be your adversary, prohibiting them from getting to know and trust your business. It’s the environmental managers that dislike their environmental auditors that feel the most stress before and during a routine audit and get the most stress while writing reports or permits.
The Truth about Auditors
But the truth is that an environmental auditor can actually be one of the most powerful compliance resources your business can tap into. Your regulators want you to succeed in obeying every applicable environmental regulation, and will do everything in their power to help you achieve perfect compliance. It’s a little like having an environmental consultant on hand, but without the high fees.
That’s not to say that a state or federal regulator will double check your reports for you before the deadline to make sure all our figures are correct, but they will be able to tell you some very important information like whether your state accepts the De Minimis exemption for chemical reporting (some don’t - and this common mistake leads to a lot of incorrect reports!), or what types of permits your facility will need to operate next year. It never hurts to contact your local regulatory office and ask about those burning questions that are keeping you awake when a report deadline is looming.
In fact, regulators are the ones who most often see the common and little-known mistakes that reporters make on their documents, and are probably the best suited free resource to help you avoid them. They don’t enjoy seeing errors in reports, and would rather help you avoid them in the first place rather than fine you for them later.
In addition, having a good rapport and trusting relationship with your regulators means that in-person audits will become less stressful because you’re already starting out on the right foot. If you’ve made an effort to prove to your regulator that environmental regulatory compliance is one of your top priorities they won’t assume the worst of you.
Earning Regulators’ Trust
Getting on your auditor’s good side isn’t hard to do: it just means doing your job correctly and transparently. No, that doesn’t mean you need to have a perfect compliance record already before an auditor will ever trust you, it simply means that you make a demonstrable effort to improve your environmental footprint, get all your reports in on time, and self-disclose violations instead of covering them up.
For example, one ERA client had an unexpected equipment failure resulting in excess emissions of HAPs. This client kept excellent records during the whole ordeal and was quick to self-report the emissions as soon as the issue was corrected. Because their recordkeeping was so detailed and accurate, the environmental regulator sent to assess the situation actually complimented the environmental manager on a job well done. Case in point: proper record keeping and quick action to stop the emissions was enough to win over the auditor despite the fact some excess emissions occurred.
Another common example is when a facility discovers it underreported its VOCs from the previous year, and the Environmental Protection Agency never discovered the mistake. Rather than keeping it hush hush, the best thing to do is self-disclose to your regulator. It will prove you’re committed to honest compliance reporting and you’re more likely to not pay any penalties for it. And chances are that if the EPA uncovers the error before you self-report, you’ll be facing some pretty large fines.
The opposite is also true. Having a good compliance record but sloppy environmental management practices is a quick way to lose the respect of your regulators. A messy and disorganized filing cabinet is not something you ever want your regulator to see, even if all the reports in it are all 100% correct (there’s a reason getting ISO 14001 certified requires you to set up an efficient EMS - they make you take the time to organize and streamling your environmental recordkeeping).
Getting into the Regulator’s Mindset
One of the best ways of managing your environmental compliance and enjoy less stressful environmental audits is to understand what your auditors will be looking for and anticipating their needs.
A tip for doing this is to first perform an internal environmental audit. We suggest you ask yourself the same questions that you were asked during your last audit. Ask your local regulators what type of questions you can expect. There are also a lot of online resources for environmental auditors that you, as an environmental manager, can access too.
And before any regulator comes to your facility, make sure your environmental data management is in order. If you’re still using paper copies of records, get them organized and filed so that the auditor can find any information they need in just a few minutes. Even better, switch to electronic environmental data management so that they can simply use the search function to find anything and get all the timestamp and authorship data at a glance.
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