Learn the biggest risk of not being in complete environmental compliance.
Being in complete compliance with all environmental rules and regulations that impact your business is no easy task. We constantly hear people ask what happens to them if they get in trouble for not being completely in compliance.
Here's a common scenario. We're discussing environmental regulations with an existing or prospective client, and we'll mention something they haven't heard before. Maybe it's an SPCC Plan. Maybe it's TRI Reporting. Maybe the client honestly never heard of the regulation before. Maybe they've been looking the other way. Maybe money's tight, or they don't want to be bothered with another regulation. I can't blame them!
Usually though, it's because they've never heard of the regulation. So invariably we'll get the question:
"What happens if I'm not in environmental compliance?"
We let them know this is a bad idea, and a risky move for their business, but most folks want to know why? Why not just keep ignoring it? Why spend the money if no one's asking for it? So let's go over some of the things that could happen if you're not in environmental compliance.
How do I know if I'm not in environmental compliance?
First off, realize this, the government does a very poor job of letting you know what you should be in compliance with. They're terrible at it. What they are good at though, is finding the people who aren't in compliance, and letting them know about the rule or regulation while usually handing them a monetary fine.
It's like speeding down the highway. You can go a long, long time without getting caught. But, if you do get caught, expect some form of punishment. Sooner or later you'll get busted for not following the rules.
To put it clearly, you have to worry about inspectors from environmental agencies visiting your site and letting you know you're not in compliance with the law.
Also, nearly all environmental regulations give outside parties the legal right to sue you if they determine you're not in compliance.
What? Outside parties?!
We're talking about environmental groups, citizen's groups, etc. Just a word of warning; these people tend to be well organized, well-staffed, well-funded, and highly motivated to get the big industrial facility in town to do the right thing.
Remember, most environmental records are public data. Anyone with an internet connection can check out the USEPA's Echo Database and review regulatory records (or the lack thereof) of any facility. In other words, it's as simple as a few clicks to figure out you're not in compliance.
What happens if I'm not in environmental compliance with all the rules and regulations I should be?
Okay, but you want to know what happens if you're not in compliance, right? Here's your answer:
- What law, rule, or regulation are you ignoring or breaking? It depends on what you're not in compliance with. It depends on how badly you're out of compliance with the regulation. Here's how it plays out. You'll probably get a Notice of Violation and maybe a monetary fine. A minor violation will likely cause a very minor response and minor punishment. A major act of non-compliance will likely produce a very major response and big punishment. Forget to sign a form, you'll probably get a notice to correct it ASAP. Forget to notify the government of that large chemical spill that occurred, you're probably looking at a very, very significant penalty.
- Who figured out you're out of compliance? It also depends on who is accusing you of non-compliance. From our experience, government agencies tend to be somewhat more lenient in many cases, since they at least claim to first want to help address the situation in a friendly manner. Third parties, who threaten to sue, will usually be less lenient. From our experience, you're much better off getting caught by your government inspector than anyone else, but again, it depends on what you're being caught doing or not doing.
- Expect to pay. You very well may get fined. How much? It depends on the nature of the violation. Something minor may be a couple of hundred dollars. Something major could easily run into the millions. I'm not talking about a BP Gulf Spill level violation either, I've seen 8 figure fines for small companies that simply didn't know about a certain regulation. Ordinary businesses can see huge fines pile up quickly.
- Did something cause the non-compliance? If something caused the non-compliance you'll probably have to cease the activity until you get squared away, which can be a real headache. I've seen facilities shut down, processes stalled, and organizations taking financial losses while they scramble to get covered. It will take time, it will cost you, it could shut your operation down temporarily, and it could affect your employee's ability to work. You definitely don't want that.
- Criminal action? While highly uncommon, it's entirely possible that you could break a law in a criminal fashion. We're not lawyers, and we aren't giving out legal advice here, but we have heard of people getting arrested for violating environmental regulations to an extreme degree. You definitely, definitely don't want to have to deal with this.
- You may have to go above and beyond. Again, depending on how bad the violation is, you may have to do something else, like develop and implement an Environmental Management System (EMS) to ensure the non-compliance never happens again. Or you might have to implement an auditing program. Or you might have to allow outside parties the right to come in and inspect your facility, which you really don't want.
- You're a target going forward. You'll be firmly and squarely on the radar screen from now on, so you'll likely not get any second chances in the future. Expect regulators from various agencies to start checking in more often. Again, you really don't want this.
What happens if you're not in environmental compliance? FIX IT!
So does being out of compliance sound worth it? I don't think so. If you want to live dangerously, good luck, but don't say we didn't warn you.
I've been saying since day one, no matter how painful or expensive being in compliance is, it's still a lot cheaper and easier than getting in trouble and having to deal with regulatory action.
The million dollar question then becomes "how do I know if I'm completely in compliance?"
Short answer. You don't. You're not an expert, so hire one. Get yourself an environmental audit, figure out what you need to be doing, and start making the moves necessary to get there. Not sure what an audit is? Check out what is an environmental audit to read more.
Bottom line answer is this. What will happen if I'm not in compliance? NOTHING GOOD.