How Just Being “In Compliance” Can Get Your Facility Into Trouble

Posted by Mark Roman on October 30, 2018

New Download: Get this Permit Compliance Reminder Chart as a quick reference guide to making changes at your facility. Download Now

You no doubt have any number of environmental permits related to the work done at your facility. As a good facility or plant manager, you want to stay in compliance, after all.

But simply acquiring permits and doing the associated monitoring or other tasks is only the first step in truly staying in the good graces of regulators. Over the five years that a permit is typically valid, there can be a lot of changes in:

  • Your manufacturing process
  • The type and amount of raw materials used
  • How and where you store materials
  • The chemicals (like solvents) used in your process
  • The number of production lines
  • The layout of your building
  • New buildings and new construction

Any time you make changes at your facility – even if they are seemingly insignificant, it’s your obligation to review your permits to see if the changes are covered by the existing permit conditions… or if you need to modify the permit or even secure a whole new permit. In some cases, you could even “drop” a permit because it’s not required anymore.

This determination is the responsibility of the facility, not regulators.

Unfortunately, I rarely, if ever, see a facility manager that practices this type of proactive permit management rather than simple permit compliance. It’s as if they are driving and only looking at the rearview mirror, instead of through the windshield to see what lies ahead.

Permits are not something you can file away and forget. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your work is done once you’ve obtained your permit. Yes, compliance management is a very important aspect of permit management, but of equal importance is making sure your permit still applies as changes occur at your facility. If you think about it, permits really only cover the conditions found at your facility at the time when you applied for the permit.

Take one facility we worked with that formulates key ingredients for consumer products under the Food and Drug Administration regulations. These consumer product ingredients are manufactured for a number of different customers through several “recipe” variations. They use a variety of raw materials to create these customer-specific products. Initially, they did an evaluation of the raw materials used and the processes involved when the facility started operating to determine what permits were needed. In this case, an air permit was the main one.

But this being the consumer products industry, the product “recipes” are constantly changing. And that means different raw materials in different quantities used in the manufacturing process than what was initially used onsite when the air permit application was filed.

Unfortunately, this facility was not keeping track of these changes and how they affected existing permits. During a regulatory inspection, it was determined that the existing permit was no longer valid because new raw materials had been introduced into the processes and production rates had increased since the initial permit was applied for. This resulted in the facility receiving a notice of violation from the regulator.

In another case, we had a client who had previously stored materials outside their facility that were exposed to weather events. This practice required a stormwater permit, which came with the need to conduct routine inspections of the site and monitoring of the stormwater. When the facility constructed an expansion of their building to store this material inside the building, they continued with the routine site inspections and monitoring of the stormwater under their permit. What they did not realize, was that since they did not conduct any exterior storage anymore, they could get rid of the stormwater permit and the need to conduct the site inspections and routine stormwater monitoring by filing a Stormwater No Exposure Certification. So, be aware of changes at your facility. Sometimes these changes help you eliminate the need for some permits!

Figuring Out If You Need a New Permit

You have your permit… but do you have a copy of the application that was filed to obtain that permit? Most of the facilities we’ve worked with don’t keep a copy of the filed permit application. That’s unfortunate, because the best way to figure out if your permit is still valid after changes have been made at your facility, is to look at the original permit application – that is where you will find the details and basis for your permit.

We always tell our clients that the application is just as important as the permit.

If it’s not available, your environmental consultant can reverse engineer your permit to figure out the basis for your existing permit. Then, you can determine what’s changed at the facility and its effects on your permit.

Say you’re adding new raw materials to your process. You’ll probably need to look at your air permit as you consider if it impacts your emissions, either by increasing them or changing them.

It may seem like a hassle and expense to go through this permit evaluation process. But, it’s better that you find out and take the necessary steps rather than a regulator determining your existing permit is not applicable.

That could lead to a notice of violation, possibly with an associated fine, with an estimated timeframe of up to 180 days to apply and receive the new permit.

When to Make Changes to Your Permit(s)

There is a strict timeline with permit modifications. You can’t wait until after you’ve made the change to your process or broken ground on a project. Scrambling at the last minute will only cause you trouble.

Communication, one of the Core Four Requirements for a smoothly run facility, is key here. As the facility or plant manager, you should be “in the loop” regarding any changes in production, raw materials, and especially capital improvements ASAP so you can get started on handling permit issues early.

The last thing you want is for an executive to be ready to cut the ribbon for a new production line… and you can’t get it running because the proper permit isn’t in place.

We have one client where this is basically what has happened.

This client is located in an area that does not have a public sewer system. As a result, they have to operate and maintain their own wastewater treatment plant under a state-issued permit.

The client was starting a major facility renovation/expansion project. They called me a few days before they planned to break ground and said local officials wouldn’t allow them to start construction… until our client could demonstrate that the renovation/expansion project would not affect the operations of the existing wastewater treatment system and they would also need to obtain any required permit modifications.

Now we’re scrambling to review the plans and secure regulatory approval for the permit modifications. It’s almost certain they’ll miss their target kickoff date as this process can take time. State regulators must sign off before the local government will issue the construction permits.

But this whole mess could have been avoided, if the client had let us know their plans in advance so we could review current permits to determine if any modifications and/or additional approvals were needed.

Permits Aren’t “Set It and Forget It”

After securing permits for your facility, it’s important to remember your job is not done. You need an ongoing, proactive process for maintaining permit compliance and modifying permits or securing new ones as needed.

As your facility expands or changes are implemented at your facility, always review how this will impact your existing permits. And do this before the changes are made in order to stay on the good side of regulators.

Organization is the best way to stay on top of your permits.

You can fill out this free Permit Compliance Reminder Chart with your permit details and post it on your desk. It’s a quick reference guide as you make changes at your facility.

You can download it here.

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