The Biggest Environmental Issues at Office Complexes 

Posted by Mark Roman on October 1, 2019

Many property and facility managers at office buildings and office complexes think that only manufacturing facilities really need to be concerned with environmental exposures and liabilities. Looking at their own buildings and property, they just don’t see all the environmental risks and potential problems, at best focusing mostly on issues related to mold and asbestos. Often certain environmental conditions exist that require permits, plans, programs and training of facility personnel.

But just because you’re not involved in manufacturing products with hazardous chemicals doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Office complexes, especially larger ones, have plenty of potential environmental issues inside and out. Here are some of the most common (and often overlooked) issues.

Back-Up Generators 

The use of back-up generators for commercial properties like gas stations and supermarkets – not to mention private homes – has exploded in recent years due to the number of hurricanes that have impacted coastal states. Office complexes are no different.

Depending on its location, size and fuel source, your back-up generator may require an air permit. If the back-up fuel for the generator is fuel oil, which is usually stored within or near the generator in an aboveground tank, this may also trigger the need for a spill management plan, a.k.a. Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) Plan, as well as related training for anyone working with the generator, especially the guy who fills it up with fuel. If you have the capacity to store 1,320 gallons or more of oil above ground, you may need to have a SPCC Plan.

But even if you don’t meet this threshold, we always recommend you develop a SPCC Plan if you have a generator that uses fuel oil. First, it significantly reduces potential exposures. Second, insurance companies love when you have a spill plan in place, and you could see savings on your rates.

Not to mention SPCC Plans are now pretty easy to implement. The USEPA has all the information you need on their website. Download the SPCC Plan template found on the USEPA’s website, fill in the blanks with information specific to your facility, and implement the plan.

Cooking Oil

Have you ever heard of a “fatberg”? It’s a congealed mass of grease, cooking oil, and other waste that clogs up sewer systems. It’s become quite a problem, especially in places with aging sewers, and it costs local sewer authorities a lot of money to remove them. It’s why it’s never a good idea to pour used cooking oil down the drain. Instead, you should use a grease trap and then store your used grease until it can be properly disposed of or recycled. 

The rise of fatbergs has local sewer authorities looking closely at anybody who generates this type of waste and what they’re doing to make sure it doesn’t get into the sewer lines. If you have a kitchen, restaurant, or cafeteria in your office complex that uses cooking oil, even just a simple place with fries and chicken sandwiches, that means you. 

Many local sewer authorities are implementing new rules and regulations concerning the discharges of fats, oils and greases (FOG) to their sewer systems, and in some cases the sewer authorities are requiring permits if you have the potential to discharge FOG. At a minimum, you should make sure you have a grease trap installed in the sewer line wherever you generate FOG, and make sure you properly maintain the grease trap by cleaning it out on a routine basis. And don’t forget to document every time you pump out your grease trap because your local sewer authority will request that type of documentation from you.

Remember we mentioned that if you have the capacity to store 1,320 gallons or more of oil aboveground at your facility, you may need an SPCC Plan. This federal requirement applies to oil of any kind, not just petroleum-based oil. It also applies to your cooking oils. As a result, we often find many office complexes require SPCC Plans due to the amount of aboveground oil storage capacity they have at their properties. So check to see if you meet the requirements for needing a SPCC Plan.

Lightbulbs

How do you dispose of your spent fluorescent light bulbs? You can’t just throw them in a dumpster. They need to be properly managed and disposed of as a universal waste, which is a hazardous waste.

As an office complex, you go through a lot of bulbs. Some facilities hire a service to take the bulbs away for recycling, and some facilities use a bulb crusher on their property, which is a small crushing unit that sits on top of a 55-gallon drum. You feed the bulb into the unit, and the resultant crushed material is contained within the drum. Once full, the drum gets disposed of as universal waste. However, if you use a bulb crusher at your facility, you may need an air permit (New Jersey requires one) and you will need to provide your employees that use the unit with personal protective equipment, including respirators. If you provide your employees with respirators, you will also need to provide them with the proper training on the use of the respirators, as well as enrolling them into a medical surveillance program. 

Stormwater

Although by regulation your office complex may not require a state-issued stormwater permit, don’t think you are in the clear when it comes to stormwater issues. Don’t forget about your local regulators.

If you store containers outside, like dumpsters or roll-off boxes, they are exposed to the elements, and may be a source of contamination due to stormwater coming in contact with materials in the dumpsters and the resultant runoff. As a result, many local regulators have implemented exterior storage requirements to safeguard against stormwater pollution for facilities that are not required to have a stormwater permit.

Often this issue comes into play during construction or renovation work, where you could have many construction dumpsters staged outside with waste. Many local regulations require all dumpsters and roll-offs to be covered to prevent stormwater contamination issues. Make sure you review your local regulations as it pertains to exterior storage requirements.

Waste Issues

As an office complex, you generate a lot of waste… waste that can’t just be thrown away. Think lighting systems, computers, batteries, lightbulbs (which I mentioned previously), and other items. Many facilities hire a recycler to come collect this material; the company typically gives you a certification that you recycled a certain amount of material.

But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Remember, this type of waste is handled as a universal waste. As the generator of the waste, you are ultimately responsible for that material from “cradle to grave.” Don’t make the assumption that since your waste is off your property, you do not have to worry about it – that is not the case.  Always remember “cradle to grave.”

You can’t claim ignorance. The truth is that when that truck drives off with your waste, 9 times out of 10, you don’t know what happens to it. So make sure you do your homework before you hire a disposal firm. Make sure of the following for any disposal firm you hire:

  • The firm has all of the necessary permits.
  • The firm has a good compliance history.
  • The firm has sufficient insurance coverages.
  • The firm is a well-established and financially sound operation – you do not want to hire a “fly-by-night” operation! Run a D&B report on them.
  • The firm tells you where your waste is going, how it is getting there, how it is being handled/treated, and provides you with a certification that all measures were completed.

Hazardous Materials

If you have any hazardous materials at your facility and those materials are over a certain threshold, you may need to report those materials to local and state officials via the Community Right-to-Know Act. And before you say, “We don’t have hazardous material,” you probably do.

For example, if you have battery-operated forklifts you use to bring in deliveries, you may have to report the lead and acid content of the batteries to state and local officials if it’s over a certain threshold, so they know what they’re dealing with if there is ever an incident in your office complex. You also need safety data sheets, as well as proper training for the forklift operators. This is one of the biggest violations we see right now.

Storage

Every office building or complex has janitor or maintenance closets, usually several in multiple locations, used for storage of cleaning supplies and other items. There are chemicals and materials in there you don’t want to mix together. Be sure to store compatibles with compatibles and keep the area neat, clean and well organized. Keep containers tightly closed. One last thing - make sure the label on the container matches the contents. You don’t want to be left wondering what’s in there.

What You Should Do Now

It’s clear that office complexes can house several unexpected environmental issues that owners or managers are unaware of or don’t consider serious. But in the eyes of regulators, there are several regulations, permits, and required training you could be subject to, depending on what materials you use or store in your facility, inside and out.

So use the above as an initial guide as you closely examine what issues you might have.

If you have any questions relative to environmental issues at your office building or complex, I’m happy to help. Please contact me, Mark Roman, at 609-208-1885 or via email at markroman@envisionenvironmental.com.

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