Understanding Your Environmental Responsibilities

Dec. 4, 2019
Efforts to reduce and minimize waste can save companies money while protecting public and worker health and safety.

Management of environmental program elements has increasingly become a major focus for safety professionals over the past few decades. Many companies once had separate environmental departments; however, as companies streamline and re-engineer their professional support staff, there has been a marked trend toward an increase in consolidation of the safety, health and environmental functions.

The traditional safety professional has found that knowledge of environmental affairs is critical to their well-being. For companies involved in global business, the ISO 14000 standards represent a revolution in corporate environmental management. The safety professional must become familiar with the ISO approach to environmental affairs.

There are approximately 30 Federal Acts pertaining to environmental regulations based on air, water and land. Some of the most important laws are as follows:

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). One of the first environmental laws written, NEPA established a national framework to ensure all branches of government consider the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. This included projects such as building airports, military complexes, highways, parkland purchases and other similar activities covered by NEPA.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Provides a “Superfund” to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites, accidents, spills and other emergency releases of pollutants or contaminants into the environment. Through CERCLA, the EPA imposes liability on owners/operators of a facility from which there is a release of hazardous substances. Transfer of a property does not relieve the owner/operator of liability and, in addition, the current owner may be held strictly liable. The last reauthorization of CERCLA was the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act (1986). These amendments covered emergency planning, community right to know and toxic release reporting.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Regulates the generation, transportation, treatment storage and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA requires the owner/operator of a facility to undertake corrective actions to clean up a facility used for the treatment, storage or disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA went through its latest revision in May 2017.

Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1990. A complex, multifaceted statute designed to regulate air emissions from stationary and mobile sources. The act is composed of 11 different titles, including the national ambient air quality standards (Title I), hazardous air pollutants (Title III), acid deposition control (Title IV), operating permits (Title V) and ozone protection (Title VI). Another important topic under the CAA is the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Recovery Relief Act, an amendment to Section 112(r) of the CAA that addresses reporting and disseminating information on flammable fuels and public access to off-site consequences. This includes the Risk Management Plan (RMP).

Clean Water Act (CWA). Prohibits the discharge of pollutants from point sources and storm water into the navigable waters of the United States without a permit. The act imposes liability on any person who is responsible for the operation and/or equipment that results in a discharge. The basic requirement of the act is to force compliance with both uniform technology-based effluent limitations, regardless of the receiving waters, and with more stringent limitations necessary to meet state-imposed water quality standards.

Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Imposes federal drinking water standards on virtually all public water systems. The act requires the establishment of drinking water standards for maximum concentration levels for organic and inorganic chemicals, turbidity, coliform bacteria and various measures of radioactivity.

Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). Governs the manufacture and use of chemical products. The import and export of chemicals are regulated under the act. In addition, specific regulations control the use, management, storage and disposal of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) materials.

Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Imposes strict liability on responsible parties for removal costs and damages resulting from discharges of oil into navigable waters of the United States. An owner/operator of an onshore facility that resulted in discharge would be considered a responsible party.

Organizing an Environmental Management Program

For years, industries claimed they didn’t realize what they were emitting into the air, waterways and ground, nor the potential effects it would have on the environment. Since the advent of the environmental disciplines (mid-1960s), our society soon realized what a mistake that approach was. Even today, abandoned industrial sites and misused landfills are still being cleaned up through the Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) “Superfund” program. Industry was not the only culprits, however; mom-and-pop shops, farmers, dry cleaning operations and other types of small businesses had just as much effect on polluting the environment.

In the early 1970s, the story of Love Canal, a housing development built over a capped industrial dump site in suburban Niagara Falls, N.Y., ran rampart in the media and took the public by surprise. Concern for this type of event happening in “our backyard” led to public demand for our legislative body to develop regulations that would ensure the proper management of industrial wastes.

Establishing an environmental compliance program can be overwhelming. Any company that is regulated by the EPA, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), among others, cannot afford to be without an environmental management process.

Whether a company is large or small, senior management must communicate a strong commitment to responsible environmental practices through the ranks down to the line worker and platform loader. Unfortunately, a sincere environmental management commitment that alters old practices often occurs only after a major disaster or stringent penalty. This does not have to be the case.

Deciding where to begin can be a big obstacle to organizing an environmental management process. The ways to comply with governmental regulations can seem endless.

Environmental leaders should recommend realistic compliance schedules and discharge limitations to environmental regulators. Often, in the spirit of cooperation, a leader will offer overly ambitious schedules and limits that ultimately cannot be met. Do not overcommit. Once limits are set in discharge permits and orders, it is difficult to get them changed.

When reporting a release that exceeds set limits, always include the reason and attempt to solve the problem. Companies that have reported pollutant releases above limits received no response from the regulatory agency and, over time, assumed the increased rate is acceptable. The company’s own reports then establish its lack of compliance, which can prompt an enforcement action or serve as evidence in a citizen suit against the company.

Prevent Common Violations

Mislabeling of chemicals and hazardous waste is probably the most commonly cited violation and can most easily result in environmental problems. It is also the easiest violation to avoid. Companies should attach proper labels to all chemical containers. In the case of hazardous waste, labels must meet both RCRA regulations and DOT requirements prior to shipping.

Storage containers must be in good condition. Leaking containers are a common source of environmental fines. Inspect tanks daily and check drums and similar containers weekly. Ensure aisle space is adequate to allow inspectors easy access to the facility. When waste is stored in tanks, regulations require secondary containment to prevent leaks or spills.

Other common violations include the following:

  • Improper waste disposal;
  • Oil spills;
  • Destruction of wetlands;
  • Dumping into oceans, streams, lakes or rivers;
  • Improperly hauling pesticides or other toxic chemicals;
  • Improperly removing and disposing of asbestos;
  • Falsifying lab data pertaining to environmental regulations; and
  • Committing fraud related to environmental crime.

These violations are considered white-collar crimes, which can result in criminal fines, probation, jail time, injunctions or any combination of these punishments. Regular audits can identify areas where potential violations exist.


Environmental regulations mandate organizations to document their environmental practices during the operations, storage, transportation and disposal of environmental waste streams. During a regulatory agency inspection, records are usually the first target for an inspector. Often, the existence of accurate and easily accessible records may be all an inspector needs.

It is also very important to document all environmental decisions. For example, whenever a facility has its waste streams analyzed and are found to be non-hazardous, records of the information supporting that determination should be maintained and made readily available to an inspector. Relying on a sketchy explanation from a compliance manager can lead to an inspection report listing possible violations. Accurate, available and complete records save companies time, money and legal headaches. It is also important to give the inspector only what is requested. Often, it is a good idea to take copies of the records to the inspector at a location away from where the records are kept.

Create a Spill-Reporting Plan

Under numerous statutes and regulations (notably Superfund), companies must notify the U.S. National Response Center immediately following the release of a reportable quantity of any hazardous substance or pollutant. As regulators decrease the time allowed between an incident and the reporting time, environmental authorities strictly enforce existing laws. In some cases, such as air pollution discharges, the permitted lag for reporting may be only minutes.

An unintentional release or spill of a hazardous material can occur during a facility emergency where personnel are literally putting out fires or responding to other emergencies. For this reason, every facility must have written procedures for employees to follow whenever a release or spill occurs. The reporting plan must detail the facility’s emergency response procedures, telephone numbers of all agencies to be notified and who has the authority to report spills. Employees should be aware of these procedures and where they are readily accessible.

Not only do spill-reporting plans permit companies to respond immediately to emergencies, but their existence is also evidence of a firm’s environmental responsibility to regulatory agencies that may question the company’s ability to respond to an emergency. It is important to conduct regular training sessions and practice incident responses so internal personnel and local response agencies are comfortable dealing with emergency scenarios.

Competitive Advantages

Efforts to reduce and minimize waste can save companies money, reduce potential environmental liabilities, protect public health, protect worker health and safety, and protect the environment. Waste can be minimized through source reduction and recycling. Source reduction generally is more cost-effective and has less impact on the environment than reuse/recycling.

Competitive advantages can be realized through the alignment of critical EHS factors along with a company’s value chain: the process by which products (or services) are conceived, produced, marketed, distributed, used and recycled or disposed of.

Steps in an environmental management program include preventing common violations, maintaining accurate records, creating a spill-reporting plan, setting realistic limits and schedules for meeting the environmental regulations, and training employees in your program objectives and procedures. Companies must also establish a relationship with an attorney skilled in environmental law.

Safety professionals must be familiar with the most current environmental regulations covering such areas as the release and recovery of hazardous substances, air, water, soil pollution and toxic substance control.


Caccavale, Salvatore. 2012. A Basic Guide to RCRA: Understanding Solid and Hazardous Waste Management. Des Plaines, IL: ASSP.

Hagan, Philip. 2009. Administration and Programs. Itasca, IL: National Safety Council.

Keegan, Robert. 2018-2019. Hazardous Materials, Substances, and Waste Compliance Guide. Kutztown, PA: Hazardous Materials Publishing Company Inc.

USEPA. 2015. Waste Analysis at Facilities that Generate, Treat, Store, and Dispose of Hazardous Waste–A Guidance Manual. Washington, D.C. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

USEPA. 2015. Title V Policy and Guidance–Basic Information about Operating Permits. Washington, D.C. USEPA.

USEPA. 2015. Guidance to Identify Waters protected by Clean Water Act. Washington, D.C. USEPA/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Salvatore Caccavale, CPEA, is president of IHN Environmental, Health and Safety Services. He has worked in corporate environmental, health, safety and security leadership roles for more than 30 years with companies such as BASF, Superior Bulk Logistics, A.M. Castle & Co. and Air Liquide Advanced Materials.

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