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Environmental compliance: business basics

Environmental Compliance: Business Basics

The ins and outs of environmental compliance and why it’s important to your sustainability goals.

The pressure is on for businesses to address climate issues. The Paris Climate Agreement, the Green New Deal, and summits like COP26 have encouraged organizations to set lofty 2030 sustainability goals to curb global emissions and reverse the effects of climate change. These ambitious sustainability goals are uncovering the realization that many businesses are struggling to keep up with even the bare minimum environmental compliance regulations.

Environmental compliance is the foundation of sustainability. It is the regulatory framework that sets the bar of environmental standards. Every regulated entity is forced to comply with these bare minimum requirements, yet many entities incorrectly boast their environmental compliance initiatives as part of their sustainability plan. To do so is greenwashing. Sustainability is taking environmental compliance one step further by going above and beyond the regulatory requirements as an environmental steward.

This article will cover the basics of environmental compliance, including the many different disciplines, their pollutants, and compliance strategies. Because after all, you cannot claim to be sustainable if you are not first compliant.

What is Environmental Compliance?

Environmental compliance is a complex term that covers a broad range of laws, regulations, and standards set forth by federal, state, and local governments. It’s a regulatory framework set in place to protect human health and the environment from harmful pollutants. These regulations force organizations and individuals to think about the impact that their operations have on the environment and to implement best practices to actively reduce pollutants.

To understand environmental compliance, we must first understand the history of environmental regulations. The best example of an environmental disaster that occurred prior to regulation is the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969. The river was so badly polluted with ignitable chemicals that it frequently caught fire. The fire of 1969 was the final straw that triggered the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. A cascade of environmental regulations followed suit that were the foundation of the environmental regulations that we abide by today, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Check out our article on environmental laws and regulations to learn more.

Environmental Compliance Disciplines

Implementing a successful environmental compliance program at your business can be a daunting task. Before a compliance strategy can be implemented, a business must first understand the many different disciplines of environmental compliance and then determine if they apply to its operations.

Hazardous and Solid Wastes

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) encompasses the regulatory requirements for organizations that generate, store, transport, or dispose of hazardous and solid wastes. In most states, the EPA has promulgated regulatory authority to the state government. This means that the state is responsible for drafting the rules and enforcement. It’s important to know that a state may be more stringent than what is laid out in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act but can never be less stringent.

Examples of wastes that are regulated under RCRA include:

  • Ignitable wastes with a flashpoint below 60 degrees Celsius. This encompasses volatile organic compounds such as paint thinners and other solvents.
  • Corrosive wastes with a pH less than 2 or greater than 12.5. This includes rust removers, cleaning solutions, and battery acid.
  • Reactive wastes that are unstable under normal conditions or react with water, which includes cyanides, sulfides, and even lithium batteries.
  • Toxic wastes that are harmful to human health or wildlife when ingested such as lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, and tetrachloroethylene.


The stormwater discipline falls within the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) regulatory body, which prohibits anybody from discharging pollutants into waters of the state (lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, etc.) unless they have an NDPES permit. For a business, it’s important to be familiar with the Construction General Permit and its requirements if they are in the construction industry while industrial facilities and office buildings need to be familiar with sector general permits. Facilities or projects that require an NPDES permit will have to develop a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) that calls out pollutant-generating activities and the Best Management Practices (BMPs) that have been implemented to minimize their impacts.

Examples of stormwater pollutants include:

  • Sewage overflow
  • Fertilizers and herbicides from landscaping
  • Sediment from earth-disturbing activities
  • Antifreeze, grease, and oils from cars in parking lots
  • Outdoor storage of chemicals


Also, under the NPDES shell, the wastewater discipline covers wastewater discharges from industrial, commercial, and domestic point sources that may contain pollutants harmful to receiving waters or publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) that receive the discharges. In short, there are limitations as to what you can and cannot put down the drain. Even mop water can contain hazardous pollutants that put your business at risk of enforcement. Check with your local pretreatment program for their standards and guidelines. There are additional wastewater provisions for those in the mining, oil and gas, and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) industries.

Examples of wastewater pollutants include:

  • Total Suspended Solids that may clog sanitary sewer conveyance systems
  • Total Dissolved Solids such as salts
  • Hydrocarbons like oils that may be spilled and pass through a floor drain
  • High Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) that indicates organic pollutants

Air Quality

Air quality is one discipline that has become progressively more complex as environmental regulations continue to tighten. Many sustainability plans focus largely on limiting greenhouse gas emissions and ignore the rest. The EPA has identified hundreds of air pollutants that can be divided into five regulatory classes: criteria air pollutants, hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) Risk Management Program regulated substances, stratospheric ozone-depleting substances (SODS), and greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Criteria Air Pollutants have set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for five of the most common pollutants to prevent harm to human health, the environment, and even property damage. The five criteria pollutants are:

  • Particulate Matter
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Ozone
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Lead
  • Sulfur Dioxide

Hazardous Air Pollutants are airborne materials that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious chronic health effects. The HAPs are:

  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Beryllium
  • Coke oven emissions
  • Inorganic arsenic
  • Mercury
  • Radionuclides
  • Vinyl chloride

CAAA Risk Management Program regulated substances include 77 toxic substances and 63 flammable substances to be regulated at specific thresholds. Some of those substances include:

  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Toluene

Stratospheric ozone-depleting substances harm the stratospheric layer of ozone that protects human health and the environment from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Examples include:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons
  • Halons
  • Methyl chloroform
  • Carbon tetrachloride

Greenhouse Gases encompass gases that absorb heat in the atmosphere which over time causes the global temperature to increase, resulting in climate change. Common greenhouse gases include:

  • Water vapor
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Methane
  • Nitrous Oxide

Other Environmental Compliance Disciplines

Hazardous wastes, wastewater, stormwater, and air quality are four of the environmental disciplines that apply almost universally to all businesses. Other areas of regulation to be aware of include

  • Aboveground storage tanks
  • Belowground storage tanks
  • Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) plans
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • Wetland mitigations/NEPA
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act reporting

Environmental Compliance Strategies

Most businesses task their environmental, health, and safety staff, operations staff, or even maintenance staff with environmental compliance responsibilities. The reality is that environmental regulatory requirements are too complex to be handled by just one individual. EHS staff often prioritize safety compliance over environmental compliance. Operations staff often prioritize workflow over environmental compliance. And with maintenance staff, a conflict of interest exists since they are most likely doing the boots-on-the-ground work.

Organizations are finding success by hiring a dedicated environmental professional. Environmental compliance jobs include titles like environmental technician, environmental scientist, environmental compliance coordinator, environmental specialist, and environmental manager. This individual, or team of individuals, should be tasked with keeping up with regulatory changes, oversight of environmental compliance at the facility, routine inspections and audits, and reporting. It’s a full-time position that will protect your business from fines and image issues with the public. There’s also an option to hide an environmental consultant or a consulting firm.

The most successful environmental compliance programs will utilize an environmental management system (EMS). Compliance with environmental regulations relies heavily on documentation. Without proper documentation, a business may find itself out of compliance despite doing the boots-on-the-ground work. You must prove that you’ve been compliant, and that’s where an EMS system comes into place.

The most commonly used environmental management system to ensure regulatory compliance is ISO 1400. Its comprised of general standards for managing environmental services, including manufacturing, labeling, shipping, and use. It also helps with life-cycle assessments, reporting, training, and auditing. An EMS system should be used in conjunction with a continuous improvement strategy. For example, EMS results from one year should be a baseline to improve upon for the following.

Environmental compliance for business is the foundation of environmental sustainability. A business cannot be labeled as sustainable if it is not first compliant with baseline environmental requirements. This article explores the many different disciplines of environmental compliance, how they apply to a business, and strategies to ensure compliance.

Further reading:

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Author: Jordan Pogorzelski holds a BA in Conservation and Environmental Science from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He started his career at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources working in the Bureau of Waste and Materials Management. Soon after, his life goals brought him out to Salt Lake City, Utah to work as the Stormwater Program Coordinator at the Utah Department of Transportation. He also works as a part-time Sustainability Research Coordinator for a start-up called AMAST, an online wholesaler marketplace for construction materials. Jordan is currently pursuing an MBA with a specialization in Sustainability Management and Analytics at Concordia University. In his free time, Jordan enjoys the many recreational opportunities that Utah has to offer. He likes to explore the outdoors by hiking, camping, fishing, and snowboarding. 

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