Author: aarcher

Thoughts on Evaluating the Quality of Environmental Compliance Audits

Thoughts on Evaluating the Quality of Environmental Compliance AuditsWhen audits are initiated in response to an outside requirement to perform an audit, simply obtaining a competent audit at a competitive cost may be the perfect solution. In these cases, audit quality isn’t as much of a concern as clearing the pass-fail bar as efficiently as possible. Of course, the audit must be performed in a professional manner and the results need to be adequately documented in a report. The federal government would call this the “lowest cost, technically acceptable” standard. If this sounds like you, your path forward is fairly clear and you should probably skip over the rest of this post.

For those who actually want an environmental compliance audit for their own — perhaps more nuanced — reasons, pinning down the value of an audit can be more complex. The best starting place is often to define why you want an environmental compliance audit at all. These reasons (or goals) should be documented and discussed with the team that is planning the audit or audit program to be sure everyone agrees on the point of it all (spoiler alert: They probably don’t). Once you have clarified why you want an audit, you might ask yourselves some questions like these examples:

  • Am I completely confident deficiencies identified in our audits are applicable and accurate?
  • I want to be confident we uncover as many of our compliance deficiencies as possible, so does our audit approach provide that level of investigation?
  • Do our audits tell me if our internal training and directives are being implemented fully?
  • Do our auditors have the experience to reveal underlying causes of noncompliance, or are we simply fixing what’s wrong today?
  • Do our audits provide guidance on how to correct compliance deficiencies to our facility personnel?
  • Do our managers and staff believe our audit process is reliable, respectful, and professional?
  • How can I maximize the information transfer (training) our operations managers and facility staff receive during and after our audits?
  • Are written audit results prepared in a way that promotes understanding of requirements, builds confidence in the audit process, and simplifies corrective actions?

Environmental compliance audit programs can offer great benefits, but organizations must consider what they want out of the program and decide what audit approach really offers the best value.

Evaluating Environmental Compliance in Layers

Evaluating Environmental Compliance in Layers

Based on our experience conducting environmental compliance audits for hundreds of facilities over the past 25 years, perspectives on environmental compliance evolve and become more nuanced over time for many organizations, in some cases moving from fundamental regulatory compliance to systems and processes that ensure the organization stays ahead of baseline challenges continually and indefinitely.

For some, acquiring necessary environmental permits, preparing required facility plans, and implementing the associated step-by-step implementation actions is the primary objective and sole focus of environmental management efforts. When this basic compliance is achieved, some recognize that backsliding is probably inevitable over time. In most cases, backsliding is a result of reduced focus on required actions after an initial compliance push, turnover in management and staff, changing regulations, outdated staff training, and changing facility operations. A refreshed emphasis on environmental compliance and a surge of effort can often get things back on track, but some view backsliding or continuing compliance challenges as an indication that environmental management processes have not been adequately institutionalized. To identify actions that would benefit from a permanent, institutional approach, many turn to analyses of overall compliance trends and root causes at that point. Where well-developed and institutionalized environmental compliance management systems exist, some take the next step and recognize that environmental regulations represent minimum requirements and decide to pursue environmental performance in its own right, leaving compliance challenges behind forever.

While we believe that all organizations are somewhere on this trajectory, not all will reach the end of this path. Facility and organization environmental compliance programs stop or hit an extended pause at any of these stages due to different leadership perspectives, business objectives, and a plethora of other factors. Enter an environmental compliance audit program.

Environmental compliance audits are initiated by regulated organizations and facilities for a variety of reasons, but the approach and results of these audits are deeply affected by the stage of environmental compliance management in which the facility is currently operating. For example, if environmental programs are fairly new, auditors may discover missing permits or plans. Audits of more developed environmental programs might identify deviations in plan implementations or details of permit requirements that indicate a lack of understanding or possible backsliding. Audits of more developed and established programs sometimes identify deficiencies that reveal problems with operating procedures, training, or other underlying systems.

Environmental compliance audits are too often performed without consideration of where the facility is in terms of program development, missing opportunities to increase the value of audit results, reduce audit costs, and ensure audit results are well-received at all levels within the organization. Where recurring audits are performed, which is the norm today, audit teams can adjust their approach to correspond to the maturity of the environmental program and “peel the onion” with each subsequent audit to maximize value to the audited entity.

EPA Penalties Increase

On January 15, 2018, increased EPA civil penalty levels went into effect. These penalty increases, which are intended to keep up with inflation, increase the maximum civil penalties EPA can impose for violations of environmental laws by two percent.

  • Clean Air Act (CAA): $97,229 (from $95,284)
  • Clean Water Act (CWA): $53,484 (from $52,414)
  • Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA): $72,718 (from $71,264)
  • Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA): $55,907 (from $54,789)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): $38,892 (from $38,114)
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA): $55,907 (from $54,789)
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA): $19,446 (from $19,057)

money stack
The increased maximum penalty levels apply to penalties assessed after January 2, 2018.

Most penalties do not reach these maximum levels, however, as various factors are used to determine proposed penalty amounts. In addition, EPA continues to encourage the use of Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEP) to offset penalty amounts with advanced environmental protection measures negotiated with violators.

Historic Architecture of Mid-20th Century Paris (Tennessee)

While reviewing the potential impact upon historic resources in northwest Tennessee, we had an opportunity to perform a Historical Architecture Survey. This survey entailed of recording over 250 structures that were older than 50 years old. I performed the field reconnaissance and our architectural historian, Chris Baker, evaluated these places based on documentary evidence.

The location was Paris, Tennessee, county seat for Henry County. Paris is home to the World’s Biggest Fish Fry. Founded in 1823, Paris has been the center of commerce and politics for the region. It was also the scene of a skirmish during the Civil War. However, in the 20th century two events would change and expand Paris. In 1944, Kentucky Lake was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority through the impounding of the Tennessee River. After the Second World War, major infrastructure projects took place across the country including the growth of the highway system. This lead to the expansion of Paris beyond its historic core including to the east along US Route 79 (E Wood St).

Paris Tennessee blog 1I had the opportunity, over four days, to walk through the neighborhoods of Paris and see the different expressions of architecture in this city. From the stately manors along Chickasaw Road, the commercial center along E Wood Street, and to the quiet streets near the Henry County Fairgrounds. The buildings expressed the economic hope and optimism of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The northern end of my radius included farmland where curious dogs and horses wondered who this stranger was and why was he taking pictures.

You can look at a place from aerial photographs, you can look at photographs others have taken of an area, you can drive through an area, but you never really learn about a place until you have walked upon it. Walking affords you the opportunity to feel the micro-changes in the terrain. Your other senses, sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch help to provide a complete picture of a place. You see the buildings, landscape, and people of a place. You smell the food, plants, and traffic of a place. You hear the animals, children, conversations, and traffic of a place. You taste the air and if you are lucky the food of a place. And finally you touch the ground, plants, and structures of a place.
WParis Tennessee Blog 2hile documenting the structures in Paris we are also collecting data to access these properties. The assessment is done to determine if they may be eligible for listing upon the National Register for Historic Places (NRHP). With a combination architectural styles popular in the post-WWII era (contemporary, minimal traditional, ranch, shed, and split-level) the neighborhoods of the eastern side of Paris are a reflection of that time. After this data was collected it was given to the Tennessee Historical Commission so that it may provide a tool in the future with regards to planning decisions. The architectural survey is a means to evaluate the impact that a proposed development project would have upon historic resources also provided a means to better understand these resources in the future. It is this way that the work that Aarcher performs is a benefit to our clients and to the communities we work in.


Archaeology in the Mountains

arch in the mountains 1
On a foggy November morning in Western Maryland, I find myself alone on a mountain top. Although Halloween had pasted, the atmosphere is something out of a Stephen King story. I am here to evaluate the area where a proposed telecommunications tower will be located.

What does archaeology have to do with telecommunications tower? The short answer is that telecommunications towers are considered federal undertakings because of the FCC license required to operate the tower. Federal undertakings in turn are subject to environmental review which includes the potential impact on cultural resources. As defined by the National Park Service:
Cultural resources can be defined as physical evidence or place of past human activity: site, object, landscape, structure; or a site, structure, landscape, object or natural feature of significance to a group of people traditionally associated with it.

What that means in practice is that the potential impacts to above-ground and below-ground historic places are evaluated for direct and visual effects.

Arch 3Back to the eerie mountain top. I find myself there to access the direct effects that constructing a tower compound will have on potential historic resources. They are potential because this area had not been previously tested by professional archaeologists. So there was the chance that there could be something here. I am there with my trusty tools: shovel, screen, and trowel. Before digging can commence, a walk-over of the project area is conducted to locate historic resources on the surface. And that is when I saw it.
The project area is covered in boulders. Do not let the picture fool you. There is no dirt in that picture. The leaves are sitting on rocks. Needless to say, I will not be digging any holes in that. However, this does not eliminate my responsibilities as an archaeologist. There may still be signs of human activity on these stones. Although more commonly seem in rock shelters, petroglyphs, rock art, are common enough in the mountains that I must take care to identify such resources. This would require a change in my methodology. Rather than casually but systematically walking back and forth across the project area followed by the excavation of shovel test pits, I was going to need to very carefully crawl and walk across these boulders in a systematic fashion to look for evidence of human activity.

Arch BillFirst I would need to change my tool. I found a fallen stick about my height and used my machete to trim the twigs off of it, creating a probe and walking stick. I had three things to worry about: wet leaves, wet moss, and wet rocks. Second, I walked around the perimeter of the project area placing flags so that I could turn the project area into a grid. Third, I slowly walked the X- and Y-axis of the grid to look for signs of human activity.

The final result was that I found nothing. Which is not a bad result, hopefully it meant that this project would not disturb any historic resources. The point of my undertaking was not to find something rather it was to identify the probability that something was there. My adventure was complete, at least for that day.