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focus on required actions after an initial compliance push, turnover in management and staff, changing regulations, outdated staff training, and changing facility operations.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.