Never in a million years did I ever dream that I would have the responsibility of managing a full blown Environmental Compliance Program that was the result of satisfying a Compliance Agreement between my employer and the U.S. EPA Suspension & Debarment Division. When EPA’s Suspension & Debarment Division gets involved you know the matter is serious. And serious it was. I was informed that members of the company failed to comply with safe work practice standards applicable to regulated asbestos-containing material during a large building renovation project. Failing to adhere to these basic safe work practices was a violation under the Federal Clean Air Act’s, National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for asbestos.
So not to bore you with all of the legal details, in the end the company pleaded guilty to one-count of felony violation of the Federal Clean Air Act. By doing so, the company agreed to pay a fine of $1M and to a five (5) year term of probation. Keep in mind that the company had no prior environmental violations.
Little did I know that things where about to become even more interesting for me. Everything immediately kicked into high gear when the company also agreed to implement an enhanced Environmental Compliance Program (ECP) for the five (5) year probationary period. My world had changed forever as I was about to take on the lead role as the Vice President of Environmental Compliance. I had the full responsibility of translating the compliance agreement into corporate policies, directives, procedures and guidelines for full implementation of our new mandated environmental compliance program by U.S. EPA.
Since the Compliance Agreement included everything but the kitchen sink, sorry I take that back, it did include the kitchen sink and more. To say the early days of the compliance program were chaotic would be an understatement. I was handed a 30+ page compliance agreement along with a very detailed Environmental Compliance Plan. I now had the responsibility to implement the compliance program throughout the entire company that consisted of approximately 550 employees with operations in 12 different states. Many sleepless nights would follow just trying to figure out how I was ever going to make this program work.
The very first thing I learned and it turned out to be the most important, was that for a compliance program to work effectively it must have the full support of senior management. Without full support of senior management there is little chance of your program surviving. Thankfully this was not a problem for me because I was fortunate enough to have had unconditional support from the senior management team for the entire program duration.
After putting together an incredible team to assist me with implementing the many details of the program, I focused on creating and implementing the following elements of the compliance agreement;
- Environmental Policy Statement: The creation of an Environmental Policy Statement that outlined the key aspects of the program and also establishing the company’s commitment to the success of the program. Each employee was given a copy to sign.
- Anonymous & Confidential Hotline Service: Established an Independent Anonymous Hotline Service that all employees were encouraged to use to report any environmental compliance issues without fear of retaliation.
- Independent Monitoring: Established Independent Monitoring of the program elements.
- Key Positions: Created Key Positions with environmental compliance monitoring responsibilities at various geographical locations.
- Audit Program: Created a three (3) Tier Audit Program that consisted of; annual independent audits, annual internal audits and monthly site location audits.
- Training: Created two tiers of environmental training for employees together with job specific training utilizing an on-line training platform.
- Standard Operating Procedures: Created ten (10) media specific standard operating procedures.
- Reporting: Regulatory Reporting and Record Keeping: Created process for assuring regulatory reporting and record retention.
- Service Contractors & Vendors: Created policy on informing contactors of their obligation while on the premises.
- Accountability & Responsibility: Processes and procedures were created to hold all employees and contractors accountable for failing to comply.
- Corrective Actions: Processes and procedures were created to implement corrective actions for all audit findings.
While in the fourth (4) year of the compliance program I received a surprise visit by two EPA audit investigators at our corporate office. The purpose of their visit was to perform a detailed audit of our environmental management system. The audit took two EPA auditors two full days to complete. At the end of the audit I received a twenty (20) page audit report which showed that we had completed the audit with zero findings against the company and that the environmental program was in full compliance. The audit report was our confirmation that all our efforts and hard work paid off.
A firm who is mandated to implement a compliance program by a federal agency will have many important decisions to make directly after the settlement. It’s my opinion that the company’s first and probably the most important decision that upper management will initially be faced with is who will have the responsibility to oversee and manage the compliance program?
My recommendation to the upper management executives that will most likely have the responsibility of selecting the program manager is choose wisely. Additionally regarding your selection, my advice is to seek out an existing employee with a strong knowledge and familiarity of the workings of the firm’s business operations. Your candidate must be an individual with strong work ethics, with a good performance record, takes pride in his/her work, communicates well and is respected by his/her peers and coworkers, and lastly has a passion for getting things done. Once a firm has selected their compliance program leader it’s absolutely critical that the highest ranking executive within the company, (Owner, CEO, and or President) communicate their full support for the program leader to every employee within the company, and the new compliance program going forward will be an intricate part of the way the company conducts their business.
In closing, I would like to say that I don’t wish any company to have to experience having a compliance-oriented system mandated by any federal agency as part of a settlement in an enforcement action. However, there is a silver lining here; you’ll find your program will provide benefits. Some benefits that I experienced were, improved employee awareness, moral and teamwork, contractor and vendor awareness, risk reduction, fewer incidents, improved compliance performance, just to name a few.
And lastly for me, our compliance program provided me the opportunity to really make a positive difference not only for the employees and the company but also provided a benefit for the environment, after all good environmental management techniques benefit everyone.
If you have any comments about this blog site, topics you would like to see in the future please let me know in the comments below.