Consulting engineers have to steer through increasing environmental legislation
The biggest problem for companies like consulting engineers who have to constantly advise clients on environmental...
The biggest problem for companies like consulting engineers who have to constantly advise clients on environmental issues is ensuring they are up to date with current laws. A myriad regulations and laws are in place that they need to be aware of.
The following article provided by EcoLog Information Resources Group summarizes the challenges and offers guidance on how firms can maintain their edge in this area.
By Juan Pablo de dovitiis
Tuesday, February 26, 2002
New bold inspection and enforcement initiatives across the country are making it more important than ever for Canadian companies to comply with environmental and waste management legislation, regulations and guidelines. Failure to comply can cost thousands (and even millions) of dollars in fines and cleanup orders.
Increased attention from both the public and media has put added pressure on governments to take action on environmental issues. This is not only making legislative changes more common, but also making those changes more sudden and unpredictable.
For instance, the contamination of the water supply of a single city, as evidenced by the Walkerton water crisis in Ontario, can change treatment policies across the country. A smoggy summer like the one Toronto endured last year, not only resulted in stricter air-pollution regulations, but also spurred politicians to start targeting new industries, such as construction firms, to lower emissions. Similarly, the threat of terrorist attacks has changed the way hazardous materials are stored and secured.
In addition, to appease public perception and media criticisms that deregulation and free-trade accords like NAFTA have exacerbated governments’ abilities to protect the environment, public officials across Canada are stepping up efforts to fight polluters in ways and areas that were unprecedented up until now.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
It is important for companies to know that there is environmental and waste management legislation at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, and that all three levels are just as likely to show their willingness to enforce regulations. Those that do not keep up with rapidly changing legislation are at great risk of facing financial penalties.
A clear example of this is the case of a well-known Alberta-based company that recently went "off-side" as a result of an employee not knowing enough about environmental legislation. This employee exported a product that, under section 7 of the Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS) regulations, can not be legally sent out of the country.
This mistake cost the company $30,000 and, perhaps more importantly, tarnished its perfect environmental record.
Examples like this are not restricted to larger companies, since they also affect smaller ones, like a B.C. construction firm that was fined $97,000 after water runoff from its building site caused serious damage to local wildlife. The B.C. government charged the company after it was proven that the runoff had reached a nearby creek and caused damage to the aquatic wildlife by increasing the water’s pH level to more than 9.0.
What makes it even more difficult for companies regulated under various levels of government is that, though they all want to lower pollution, their approaches tend to follow very different philosophies.
The federal government, for example, is combining tough CEPA regulations with a willingness to work with offenders and non-offenders in the industry sector, to promote a more cooperative relationship.
“In addition to taking actions under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to protect the health and environment of Canadians," says Environment Minister David Anderson, "voluntary measures such as a Memorandum of Understanding are also an effective means of accelerating the reduction of toxic substances and other pollutants released to the air, water and land.”
In contrast, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment announced draft Administrative Monetary Penalties (AMPs) Regulations, which would introduce fines for infractions such as failure to submit reports on time or non-compliance with certain operating conditions.
"Administrative penalties," says Ontario Minister of Environment Elizabeth Witmer, "will send a strong message that no one will be able to disregard even the most basic environmental laws."
The Ontario government also recently passed precedent-setting changes to the regulations that govern hazardous waste. These changes, which include a first ever online registration system and more rigorous reporting requirements, will impact 16,000 Ontario hazardous waste generators directly and many more indirectly.
Furthermore, since fall 2000, the environment ministry SWAT Team has completed more than 700 inspections in a variety of areas, including hazardous waste transfer and processing facilities, recycling organizations in the industrial, commercial and institutional sectors and hazardous waste haulers.
"Finally they are showing the industry that the environment ministry has some authority," says Mitchell Gibbs, manager of emergency services at TEAM-1 Environmental Services Inc., "SWAT will dissect your operation and no operation is safe from their powers."
This emphasis on punishment is likely to have a profound effect on businesses affected by new legislation and enforcement methods. In Ontario alone, the number of orders issued to companies for the first six months of the year in 2001 went up 58 per cent. In that time, the number of charges laid on companies also went up from 670 to 825.
"We try to work with companies as well, but right now what we are focusing on is making sure that we are not letting polluters of the hook," says Mark Rabbior, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. "Our objective is to protect the environment, and compliance with the law is not optional, it is mandatory."
The British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection has also recently released new plans that focus on the development of environmental standards and public reporting. The most significant initiative will be a major reform of B.C.’s current environmental assessment process.
OTHER IMPACTS ON INDUSTRY
Companies across the country are not only being forced to pay for breaking the law, they are also likely to start paying for the costs of disposing their products.
"The environment ministry’s ‘cost recovery’ program will cost Ontario industry alone approximately $11 million per year," says Damian Basset, president and CEO of Corporations Supporting Recycling (CSR).
Another new trend that public concern with the environment is creating is an overlapping in jurisdictions, as governments try to broaden their areas of influence concerning environmental legislation.
"We expect potential regulations for the transboundary movement of solid waste (including waste export reduction plans)," says Mr. Basset, referring to the federal government legislating areas that provinces used to regulate exclusively, "as well as new import-export regulations for hazardous waste, and Environmentally Sound Management (ESM) standards."
It is also important to note that in many instances it is management, even if they are not directly responsible, which can be criminally charged for the actions of their employees.
That was the case last year when the owners of a B.C. company were charged under the province’s Waste Management Act with illegal storage of special waste and failure to comply with a pollution prevention order. If convicted, the owners face a maximum penalty of $1 million and up to six months in jail.
THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING
The biggest problem for companies that have to deal with environmental issues and waste management then becomes how to best keep up with ever-changing environmental laws. And, even in today’s world, with powerful tools like the Internet, that can still prove to be a very difficult goal.
"The challenge is now less one of ‘can we get the information,’" says Richard Sydor, M.SC., P. Eng., senior hydrogeologist at Stantec Consulting Ltd., "and more of how we sift ‘good information’? How do we sort and store it? And how do we efficiently retrieve and absorb the important aspects?"
The difficulties with "sifting" through this information are also multiplied three-fold when companies have to deal with various levels of government. And, as Mr Sydor points out, it not only becomes a matter of getting that "right" information, but also of who is providing it.
Education is the best weapon for companies to protect themselves. And, while it is important to keep abreast of new legislative trends by utilizing resources like government web sites, it is also crucial to learn about the impact that new legislation and important case studies will have on companies through the specialized media.
By providing employees with resources such as industry publications, newsletters and environmental compliance reports that provide current information about new regulations and legislative trends, as well as a subsequent specialized analysis, companies can prevent losing thousands of dollars in possible fees and fines. At the same time, these resources also have the added advantage that they will help improve an employee’s overall understanding of their industry, and, as a result, boost a company’s competitive edge.
In the end, utilizing government resources, and complementing them with expert advice from the specialized print and on-line media, may prove the most effective way of ensuring that a company does not become the next case study in an environmental compliance report.
The author, Juan Pablo de dovitiis, would like to thank EcoLog Information Resources Group (www.ecolog.com) for contributing case studies and other data in the preparation of this article.