Working with the EPA

Working with the EPA

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published November 2017


Out the emphasis on ‘with’ when interacting with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To achieve its overarching goal of protection, the EPA solicits input from experts outside the agency.

The EPA (like all government rule-writing entities) encourages and welcomes comments on pending rules. And it identifies and disseminates information about environmental best practices, thereby allowing businesses to replicate or improve upon environmentally-friendly practices. Engaging in both kinds of exchange is something that industry members, particularly groups of industry members, should be doing.

How important is it to comment on pending rules? “It’s extremely important,” says Robert M. Hinderliter, who is well-known to our industry as a consultant on environmental issues and best practices. He is based in Fort Worth, TX.

“I’ve seen major changes because people got involved in the comment period,” says Hinderliter. “If you don’t make comments, you make your first mistake in working with the EPA.”

Anyone can comment during an open comment period. Regulations.gov compiles and lists pending rules and comment periods for all government rule-writing entities. Rules are published every day by the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys).

Because any individual can comment on any rule, some individuals commenting may have less depth and breadth of expertise than others. Working through professional organizations by arriving at statements through organizational consensus and submitting statements on behalf of the organization can bolster the strength of a comment.

Hinderliter says that comments provided by professional organizations generally have more influence. For example, he has worked with the Power Washers of North America (PWNA) since its inception and cites the importance of comments arriving at the EPA from PWNA.

One of the biggest obstacles to full compliance with regulations is confusion. How can a contractor be sure that a wastewater handling method complies with relevant regulations for a specific locale? It takes due diligence.

The National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States; it derives from the Clean Water Act (CWA). Simple enough, except that the issuance of permits may fall to a region or state or default to the federal level. And the federal government only sets the discharge limit; it does not specify the process. See the second section of this article for more about NPDES.

Because of the all-encompassing purview of EPA for matters having to do with pollutants, water quality is just one example of the concerns of the agency. Air quality is another.

The structure of permitting programs established under the Clean Air Act (CAA), like those under the CWA, are implemented in different ways even though they advance the same goal. Some are directly implemented by EPA through its regional offices. Others are implemented through states, local agencies, and approved tribes.

The murkiness over not only where to get a permit—a contractor may work in more than one permitting area, for instance—but also when is a source of perennial consternation. Just determining who is in charge of permitting—the health department, the sanitary sewer department, an environmental department, or other department—can be vexing.

“If they would make regulations reasonable, reliable, and rational, they would get voluntary compliance,” says Hinderliter. And that would be a very good thing, he explains. “Voluntary compliance is a little slower” to achieve than non-voluntary. But it engenders good feeling about participation.

Members of our industry have just as much concern for the health of the environment and the legacy they leave for their families as the most vocal environmental advocates, after all. They want to comply and do comply.

It takes a lot of effort to bring voluntary efforts to fruition, of course. Hinderliter has been working with the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area to move it toward a uniform NPDES permitting system.

As all move toward clarity in the regulatory area, contractors can do their part to promote understanding by citing the health and safety benefits of power washing. Such information should be part of all marketing materials, says Hinderliter.

Minimally Invasive

To adopt a phrase from the medical profession, a ‘minimally invasive’ approach does the most with the least disruption to the human body—and to the environment. Do more with less. Then carry the message to EPA that we can do and are doing more with less. It’s a message many members of our industry convey regularly to the EPA and encourage others to convey to the EPA.

Another member of our industry who has worked tirelessly to identify and communicate best practices is Jerry McMillen, president of Cleaning System Specialists Inc. (dba PressureWasher.net) in El Cajon, CA, and the author of The Professional Cleaners Guide to Wash-Water Control. He has also chaired and serves on the United Association of Mobile Contract Cleaners (UAMCC) environmental awareness committee.

“Explaining how ‘best available technology’ actually works is the task” when working with EPA, says McMillen. The more thorough the appreciation regulators have for what end users are doing, the more the industry and society as a whole benefit.

Continuing the focus on health and safety as desirable outcomes of cleaning, consider that in many instances it would be a health hazard not to clean. Grease is an outright slip and fall hazard; it also attracts vermin. Dust and debris that accumulate on buildings may contribute to respiratory ailments.

A contractor conversant in the benefits of cleaning—well-practiced from discussions with customers—will be more comfortable talking with regulators. Some of the on-site personnel from regulating authorities may be new to our industry and welcome all the information contractors can give them.

Similarly, contractors should be seeking technologies that help them to minimize the use of water and chemicals and to maximize results. Doing more with less is one of the surest ways to not only help protect the environment but also draw positive response from the EPA.

Knowledge of issues is obviously important when commenting on a pending rule. Yet because anyone can comment, there can be variation in expertise among individuals providing comments.

McMillen says that it would be best if EPA were “only contacted by a qualified industry representative” during comment periods. That would ensure the outcomes of the interaction are the best they can be.

NPDES As Examples

For an entity other than EPA (such as a state, local agency, or tribe) to acquire responsibility for permitting, the entity must go through a rigorous process. The process itself is another junction at which industry members have a great opportunity to provide comments. In this instance it is directly at the forums established to discuss the application for a permit.

To get a better understanding of how permitting entities gain authority, consider the recent application from Idaho to enable the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ) to assume the role of writing, administering, and enforcing water quality discharge permits in the state. Until and if it changes, the role for NPDES permits is filled by federal authorities at EPA.

At five public meetings across Idaho from September 11 to October 11, 2017, the federal EPA was slated to provide information and take questions, comment, and testimony. At every meeting, industry members would be as welcome to speak as any citizen. If the IDEQ is given NPDES authority, federal EPA permits already issued by EPA will remain in effect and become Idaho PDES permits.

Even when a state or other entity is granted permitting authority, the EPA retains tight control. It has oversight of the program, which includes the right to review at any time and the right to reject permits it determines are inconsistent with CWA and NPDES. If the EPA determines there are unaddressed issues, it can federalize the state permit. Moreover, it is the EPA that continues to have enforcement authority over all dischargers of pollutants.

The IDEQ application process and constraints on it illustrate the absolute control EPA has over permitting. It also demonstrates how complex permitting issues are. It would take Idaho three years and four phases to fully take over authority (domestic wastewater facilities and pretreatment program, then industrial wastewater facilities, next general permit or non-stormwater, and finally, all stormwater and biosolids).

Idaho is a small state (population 1.683 million in 2016) trying to take control of NPDES authority for Idahoans. It’s not easy. Imagine a bigger state or region, and the effort that must be expended to meet rules becomes even greater.

Many readers know the phrase ‘torrent of regulations,’ and it does have descriptive merit. There are so many regulations and so many levels of regulation that it can be difficult to be certain every required permit has been obtained and every rule met. That’s where professional organizations, local and regional EPA offices, and state environmental control departments can help.

Being involved by providing comment and sharing best practices and best available technologies with regulators takes time. Yet the very activity of doing those things allows for two-way flow of information, the flow that makes certain our industry is working with EPA and EPA is working with our industry. 

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