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Ensuring continuous compliance with applicable requirements associated with the myriad of complex environmental laws and regulations can be time-consuming, costly and challenging. Responsibility for environmental compliance (particularly in regard to implementation, such as inspections and recordkeeping) at industrial/manufacturing facilities is often delegated to personnel with other primary job functions that compete for their time and attention. Many companies incorporate third party environmental compliance audits conducted by experienced environmental consulting professionals into their overall compliance programs to supplement their day-to-day environmental compliance activities. Typically, these third party audits can be very effective in providing meaningful input to the compliance leadership and staff by identifying deficiencies or recommending improvements. An experienced outside professional brings the benefits of observing other industrial operations and compliance practices, a background in environmental compliance, and of observing existing operations without the bias (or blindness) caused by over-familiarity.
However, the audit alone does not achieve compliance.
An environmental compliance audit will generally begin with identifying the site-specific applicable requirements associated with Federal and State regulations (and relevant permits), and completing a gap analysis (i.e., determining the facility’s compliance status measured against those requirements and then identifying recommended corrective actions to improve compliance.) The real compliance work begins after the audit. Additional resources must be properly allocated following the audit to develop plans for compliance and then implement corrective actions. Too often, companies fail to allocate adequate resources and priority to this follow-up within a reasonable time-frame. What is considered a “reasonable time-frame” is not always specifically defined; however, a few months may be considered “reasonable,” but findings that would be a violation that are not corrected within a few years will most likely will not.
In cases where an audit is done, but adequate follow-up action is not provided, the audit can actually increase liabilities. The audit creates an easy paper trail for an agency inspector to follow, which documents prior knowledge of potential violations if not corrected. The prior knowledge aspect can then be looked at by the agency as more egregious than a notice of deficiency or violation that the facility was not aware of prior to an agency inspection. As a seasoned environmental consulting professional who has performed environmental compliance audits for a wide variety of industries, I have seen this happen several times over the past year. I recently got a phone call from a company for whom I had previously conducted an environmental audit, indicating they have received a Notice of Violation (NOV). They are looking for assistance in responding to the NOV (and maybe wondering why the audit did not prevent the NOV). I ask them to send me the written NOV letter, and upon reading the letter, I get a curious sense of deja vu. Upon reviewing my audit report, I discover that my audit findings identify this particular deficiency and that even the language used in the NOV could almost have been cut and pasted directly from the findings and recommendations section of my audit.
A third party audit can be a great tool to enhance compliance, provided that recommended corrective actions to address the gaps found are implemented.
Without the compliance follow-up, the audit does not serve as a compliance tool, and only serves as an invitation for NOVs and possible fines. Environmental consulting professionals can also be of assistance in addressing the findings of an environmental audit. Consulting assistance can range in the level of support, depending on what is required to supplement available internal resources, to include:
- Onsite Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) professionals provided on a contract basis to manage the day-to-day compliance issues;
- Developing required plans;
- Part-time consulting to coach internal personnel;
- On-call consulting; and
- Follow-up audits.
For more information regarding environmental compliance audits, please contact me 919-459-5229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.