Environmental Inspection

What is an environmental inspection & how its work?

Have you ever undergone an environmental inspection by a representative of a government agency, such as the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), your state/province environmental agency, or a local agency? It may have been a nerve-wracking experience, or perhaps you received a negative report or even a penalty or fine.

So how can you prepare for environmental inspection, and what can you do to ensure it goes well? This article will answer some of the questions you may have regarding environmental inspections, and will provide some tips and guidance to ensure your inspection goes smoothly.

What is an environmental inspection?
An environmental inspection is an investigation of either your level of compliance with an environmental regulation or permit, or of a perceived noncompliance or a complaint.

If your precast plant has an environmental permit of some kind (such as an NPDES1 stormwater discharge permit, or an air quality permit), you can expect to be inspected at some point for the duration of that permit (typically five years). Inspections are also possible before a permit is issued or after it expires, and they may occur several times.

Another reason you might be inspected is because of a complaint about the environmental conditions or operations of your plant. For example, a neighbor may complain about dust from your plant, runoff from your plant site, excessive noise or any other issue, whether it is valid or not. It is the inspector’s job to determine the validity of the complaint. Or possibly environmental inspectors may suspect noncompliance at your plant on the way to some other site and make an unannounced visit to see if you have the required permits and approvals.

What will be inspected?
Usually, environmental inspections by an outside regulatory agency are focused on one issue such as compliance with your air permit. As such, inspections tend to be somewhat limited in scope. However, it is not uncommon that an inspector is well versed in several areas of environmental regulations, and he or she may also inspect for water quality issues, hazardous materials issues and other required compliances. Or if a pattern of noncompliance or problems is found, the inspector may come back at a later date with additional personnel to conduct a thorough, comprehensive inspection of a variety of environmental regulatory issues.

Can I refuse an inspection? When will an inspection occur?
When you ask for an environmental permit or approval of some type, the approval typically comes with a condition that grants the regulatory agency the right to inspect your operation. However, there may be some circumstances in which you have legal rights to require some form of legitimate authorization to conduct an inspection of your facility. If this is the case, you’re usually in a serious situation.

Inspectors tend to limit visits to normal working hours, although they have the right to inspect at any time and unannounced. The best strategy is to assume that an environmental inspection can occur at any time. And unless you have an overridingly sound reason to do so, it’s probably not a good idea to contest an inspector’s authority to conduct an inspection. As always, when in doubt, seek qualified legal counsel beforehand with regard to permissible access to your site.

Who can conduct an environmental inspection?
Environmental inspections usually are carried out by representatives of environmental regulatory agencies, such as a state/province environmental agency or the EPA. There may be one inspector or several working as a team. Within reason (compliance with safety considerations, for example), they can inspect what they want, when they want.

At all times, environmental inspectors at your facility should be accompanied by a plant staff member. When inspectors arrive at your plant and request an inspection, you should always review their credentials. Every government inspector will have some form of government identification or a business card at minimum. Allow only authorized government inspectors to conduct inspections on your property and not local citizens, members of environmental groups or others without appropriate prior knowledge and informed consent on your part. Again, you may wish to consult legal counsel before these types of visits are made. Remember, government regulators may have certain rights to inspect your property for compliance with environmental permits or approvals, but most non-regulatory individuals do not have this right.

What will inspectors look for?
Environmental inspectors will look for everything that pertains to the regulatory permit or approval in question. For example, when conducting an NPDES stormwater discharge permit, an inspector will likely review all paperwork and documentation related to your permit, such as a copy of a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan and your Discharge Monitoring Report submittals. Then, a thorough inspection of site conditions and outfall locations (ditches, swales) will likely occur. An inspector typically will make notes and may take photographs.

Will I know the results of the inspection right away?
At the conclusion of the inspection, inspectors may verbally summarize their findings, although they are under no obligation to do so. You may have to wait until you receive a written report summarizing inspection findings. If a problem is found, you may be issued a field Notice of Violation (NOV) at that point, or one may show up later. There are certain legal issues involved with the receipt of a field NOV, such as who should receive it, who should sign for it and whether it can be refused. Invariably, if an NOV is going to be issued, it will arrive through proper legal channels; again, another instance where consulting legal counsel (before inspections) is advisable.

What should I do during an inspection?
First of all, remember that environmental inspectors from a governmental agency are professionals doing their jobs and that they are human too. Everyone wishes to be treated professionally and courteously, so ensure that you treat visiting inspectors with proper regard. Be helpful and courteous. You are under no obligation to guess or speculate on anything, so answer only what you know. If you don’t know the answer, confirm that you will find it in a timely manner and forward that information to the inspector as soon as possible. Provide the inspector with what he or she requests, but don’t provide unnecessary or extraneous information.

During the course of environmental inspection, stay with the inspector and take note of what he or she observes. You may wish to take your own set of notes during the inspection, including any summary remarks, and take duplicate photographs or samples if the inspector does so (this material may prove useful in the future should an NOV be issued). And don’t neglect safety issues – if you normally wear full personal protection equipment (PPE) during the course of your job function, wear it during the inspection and request that the inspector does likewise. If the inspector does not have appropriate PPE to wear during the inspection, provide it. Remember, your job is to manage the inspection in a professional manner, and hopefully to conclude it in a timely and successful manner.

What can I do to ensure that an inspection goes smoothly?
The No. 1 thing you can do to ensure your inspection goes smoothly is to make sure you are in compliance with all applicable environmental regulations that pertain to your precast plant. Overlook nothing! It is absolutely critical to be in compliance. If you don’t have the expertise on staff to ensure that the facility is in compliance, seek qualified assistance from an experienced environmental professional and/or legal counsel who will perform an environmental audit of your plant.

As part of your overall compliance program, ensure that you and your staff understand what permits and approvals have been obtained, know your responsibilities, and have the supporting documentation and site activities to confirm the compliance level. The second thing you may wish to do is to create a plan for inspections and then train with it (seek help if you need it for creating this type of plan).

Conclusion
By following these simple strategies, you can turn a potentially unpleasant experience into a beneficial one. Provided you’re in compliance, have all necessary permits and approvals, and have a solid plan for conducting environmental inspections, the inspection will likely be brief and successful, and the inspector may not visit again for several years.
Here is a quiz on environmental inspections that can be used during your environmental training sessions or staff meetings. All are True/False statements with the answers provided.

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