Are you in compliance?: A checklist to prepare for changing environmental regulations
Wastewater treatment is often necessary to protect the environment, human health, and ensure consistent quality in a facility’s process or products. Without a proper treatment strategy, a facility risks running afoul of state and federal environmental regulations, potentially resulting in heavy fines and even legal action. But avoiding regulatory violations can be tricky, since environmental regulations are constantly changing.
Regardless, it pays to maintain compliance with any regulatory requirements applicable to your facility. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the things you can do to achieve just that.
How to comply with environmental regulations
If you run an industrial facility that produces any significant amount of wastewater, you likely operate some type of wastewater treatment system, and are subject to regulatory enforcement by relevant environmental agencies. In the United States, this means you’ll likely need to comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations at the federal level, as well as additional regulations at the state or local level, as determined by your facility’s location. Compliance with environmental regulations typically means implementing the right wastewater treatment systems for your needs, monitoring and maintaining your systems, and understanding and abiding by the enforcement requirements of regulatory agencies. To achieve these big picture objectives, there are a number of important, but often overlooked, tasks you can do. The following actions can help you to prevent costly violations, and keep your water and wastewater treatment systems operating smoothly.
Gather information about your facility
Ensure that you have an up-to-date record of information about your facility and its operations. This can range from very basic details, like physical/mailing addresses, designated contacts, and hours of operation, to more specialized information, like existing permit numbers and expiration dates, wastewater sampling locations, staffing counts, and other details about your facility and its operations. There are a number of different circumstances where you may be required to present information about your facility for compliance reasons, such as when you complete an initial or renewal application for a permit under the State or National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES & NPDES) or Industrial User/Significant Industrial User (IU/SIU) programs. You may also be required to do so during routine compliance monitoring activities such as a compliance inspection, or in response to an information request from a regulatory agency. It can be helpful to start by reviewing any forms or documentation relevant to your facility, such as the NPDES permit application or IU/SIU permitting manual to identify the types of information you may be asked to provide. Checking these types of resources from time to time can help you to stay informed if and when routine compliance reporting protocols change.
Having current information about your facility on hand will make it easier to produce needed records in a timely fashion, and can improve the efficiency and quality of your working relationship with external parties such as inspectors, consultants, or legal counsel.
Get familiar with the EPA’s Audit Policy
The EPA Audit Policy is a program that incentivizes facilities to voluntarily report and correct violations of federal environmental laws and regulations. In essence, if your facility discovers an environmental violation through a self-assessment, the Audit Policy can help you get a break on punishments you might normally be subject to, provided that your facility takes steps to disclose and resolve the issue in accordance with EPA requirements. For this reason, research the EPA Audit Policy to ensure you can take advantage of its incentives, should you need to.
Incentives under the EPA’s Audit Policy are substantial, and include the following:
- Penalty reduction. It’s no secret that facilities who are caught violating environmental regulations through normal enforcement and monitoring activities can have steep financial penalties levied against them. But under the EPA’s Audit Policy, entities that self-report a violation may receive a reduction of 75% or even 100% of gravity-based penalties. And while it’s worth noting that the Audit Policy does not offer relief for economic benefit penalties (i.e. those assessed to recapture the amount a facility is estimated to have financially benefited from its non-compliance), the reduction of gravity-based penalties alone can be an excellent incentive for entities concerned about cost. Additional flexibility is also allowed for entities with less than 100 employees under the Small Business Compliance Policy.
- No criminal prosecution. When an entity willingly discloses violations under the Audit Policy, the EPA agrees not to recommend the incident for criminal prosecution by the US Department of Justice. This provides a pathway for facilities to resolve violations while avoiding risks like costs, disruptions, and reputation damage resulting from possible legal proceedings.
- No routine audits. Under the EPA’s Audit Policy, facilities are encouraged to conduct internal environmental audits, but are not required to submit their audit reports to the EPA on a routine basis. There are some caveats here, as certain types of audit findings must be reported by law, and there’s nothing to prohibit the EPA from requesting audit reports on a case-by-case basis, particularly for entities with a history of violations. But the spirit of the Policy is that facilities may generally conduct their own environmental assessments with some expectation of privacy, which can help to alleviate concerns that auditing your own operations will trigger enforcement investigations.
- New owner incentives. Additionally, the EPA’s Audit Policy has a set of tailored incentives for new owners, including more comprehensive penalty mitigation with coverage for both gravity-based and economic-based penalties for violations that began prior to the change in ownership. Eligibility for new owners extends up to nine months after acquisition.
In order to take advantage of these incentives, entities must voluntarily discover environmental violations within their facilities, then promptly report them to the EPA, and correct them to prevent future recurrence. The timeline is tight—facilities must report a violation to the EPA within 21 days, and must correct and remediate it within 60 days of discovery. Including these deadlines, entities must meet a total of nine conditions to be fully eligible for the above incentives.
While these incentives are considerable benefits for those looking to mitigate risks while bringing their operations up to compliance, it is important to take the time to fully understand program conditions before undertaking an environmental audit of their facilities, since the clock starts ticking as soon as a violation is discovered, and more serious violations may not be covered by the Policy.
Conduct an EHS audit
If you don’t already, consider implementing a routine internal environmental audit. Or, if you already have an environmental audit cycle in place, consider whether any updates are needed to ensure coverage for any operational or facility changes that may have been implemented recently. There are many Environmental Health & Safety (EHS or EH&S) consultants and environmental engineering firms that can assist you in developing and managing an internal audit program that’s right for your facility and location. A good firm can help you to proactively identify and resolve compliance risks, and protect your facility against EHS liabilities. To find a qualified EHS consultant, consider checking with relevant professional organizations, like NAEM or AWMA, who both maintain searchable directories.
So what to expect when conducting an environmental compliance audit? When working with an EHS consultant, your internal audit should cover all of the water uses happening within your facility, as well as any wastewater streams generated as a result. An auditor will pay particular attention to any toxic, hazardous, or regulated substances present in raw materials, process streams, and wastewater streams that your facility handles, and identify what controls you already have in place to prevent contaminants from polluting nearby land, air, or water. Finally, the audit will look for any existing compliance issues, and also assess whether any of your systems may be particularly prone to spills, leaks, or other issues that may pose compliance risks down the road.
When undertaking an audit, be sure to have a plan in place to report and address any regulatory violations that you may discover, as the penalties for known but unmitigated violations can be severe. These types of planning and risk mitigation services are also typically offered by EHS consultants.
Conduct a treatability study
If you’ve noticed inconsistent performance in your wastewater treatment systems, inefficiencies, or other performance issues that put your facility at risk of regulatory violations, you may be considering making improvements to your wastewater treatment plant. If so, a treatability study is a great place to start. Commissioning a treatability study can entail a small to moderate investment depending on the complexity of your needs, but it can help you to zero in on the best water treatment technologies for your needs. Running a treatability study will also give you access to experts that can help you to achieve compliance with local, state, and federal regulations, implement a water reuse or recycling strategy, prevent system upsets, or meet other goals that are important for your facility.
How can SAMCO help?
With over 40 years’ of experience in engineering and manufacturing custom water treatment and wastewater treatment systems, SAMCO has the resources and expertise to deliver economical solutions that help you maintain compliance with even the most stringent environmental regulations. Our team offers services spanning engineering, design, lab tests and pilot studies, fabrication, installation, and ongoing support to carry your water treatment project from concept to completion.
Whether you need help in meeting discharge permit limitations, avoiding system upsets, updating your systems to comply with new regulations, or whatever your goals may be, please feel free to contact us with your questions, or visit our website to set up a call with an engineer or request a quote. You can also click on over to our blog to learn more about wastewater treatment systems, industrial water conservation strategies, and more.