July 29, 2004

Getting to compliance with a systems approach

Oasis Environmental

Over the years, government regulatory agencies and industry have not always agreed on the best approach to manage environmental issues.

ISO 14001 elements
• Environmental policy
• Environmental aspects
• Legal and other requirements
• Objectives and targets
• Environmental management programs
• Structure and responsibility
• Training, awareness and competence
• Communication
• Environmental management system documentation
• Document control
• Operational control
• Emergency preparedness and response
• Monitoring and measurement
• Nonconformance and corrective and preventive action
• Records
• Environmental management system audit
• Management review

With an ever-expanding body of laws and regulations governing resource use and environmental protection, the idea of being "in compliance" has become a significant challenge for organizations. However, while the need for a rigorous compliance regime at the state and federal levels will likely never cease, there is some agreement between regulators and the regulated community on how compliance and improved performance might best be achieved and maintained over the long run: using environmental management systems (EMSs).

For some time now, industry has recognized the benefits of the systems approach to environmental management. Developing industry-specific codes of practice and guidance for the development and implementation of management systems has become the norm. For example, since 1988, the U.S. chemical industry has advocated the "responsible care" initiative, including a framework for a responsible care management system that addresses environmental, health and safety issues at the organization and/or facility level.

The American Petroleum Institute has published guidelines for its membership on what it considers the critical elements of an effective management system through its "Model EHS (Environment, Health & Safety) Management System" guidance.

Since the mid-1990s, the use of EMSs by organizations in all industry sectors has expanded by leaps and bounds. Grown out of the quality management movement of the 1980s, the transition to the systems approach to environmental management has helped organizations in the United States and around the world better understand how their activities, products, or services can impact the environment, and assist them in planning for and achieving increased environmental performance.

What is an EMS?

The term "management system" refers to an organization's structure for managing its processes or activities to meet its overall objectives. In the case of an environmental management system, it is the collection of processes and controls that exist in the organization for managing environmental issues, ultimately measured by overall environmental performance, such as compliance with laws and regulations, reduction in discharges or energy consumption, or other measures.

To date, environmental management systems have been largely a voluntary initiative in the United States, although their use is fast becoming a business necessity to maintain competitiveness. Primarily used for internal purposes as a tool to manage environmental responsibilities, EMSs have other benefits as well.

The systems approach to environmental management may also help an organization identify opportunities for financial cost savings, enhance its public perception, or satisfy the requirements of business partners in the supply chain. In a broader sense, the systems approach can be a solid step towards overall environmental and corporate social responsibility programs.

ISO 14001

While a number of industry-specific guidance documents and standards have come about over the years, one standard has become the measure to which all other EMS standards are compared. First published in 1996, ISO 14001, "Environmental management systems — Specifications with guidance for use," provides a valuable framework for organizations seeking to better manage their environmental issues.

Consisting of 17 elements, ISO 14001 defines pieces of an overall EMS that can be adopted by an organization of any size, in any industry, public or private, anywhere in the world. Focusing on the systematic identification, assessment, control and improvement of environmental aspects of the organization, the elements of ISO 14001 lead an organization down a step-wise path to environmental management.

To demonstrate that an organization has designed, implemented and is maintaining an ISO 14001-based environmental management system, it may hire a third-party to perform an audit of its EMS and certify that it meets all 17 elements.

As evidence of the wide-ranging support for ISO 14001, at the end of 2002, at least 49,462 ISO 14001 certificates had been issued by third-party registration firms in 118 countries, an increase of more than 34 percent from the previous year.

While this is an impressive testament to the faith organizations around the world are placing in the systems approach, the numbers do not begin to describe the countless additional organizations that have chosen to implement an ISO 14001 EMS but not seek external certification. As certification may entail an additional cost for an organization, the decision to certify a system or not may be dependent on internal business requirements, as well as external considerations such as customer requirements or other stakeholder interests.

Government support for EMS

Executive Order 13148, "Greening the Environment through Leadership in Environmental Management," was issued in April 2000. Leading by example, the federal government declared, "By December 31, 2005, each agency shall implement an environmental management system at all appropriate agency facilities based on facility size, complexity, and the environmental aspects of facility operations. The facility environmental management system shall include measurable environmental goals, objectives, and targets that are reviewed and updated annually. Once established, environmental management system performance measures shall be incorporated in agency facility audit protocols."

In addition to implementing its own EMS, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a number of state regulatory bodies, have issued formal statements of support for the use of EMSs to help maintain compliance and improve other aspects of environmental performance. In May 2002, then EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman issued a statement that "EPA will encourage the use of recognized environmental management frameworks, such as the ISO 14001 standard, as a basis for designing and implementing EMSs that aim to achieve outcomes aligned with the nation's environmental policy goals."

Further evidence of government support for EMSs can be seen in its use as part of settlement agreements between EPA and industry, whereby under certain circumstances organizations with alleged compliance violations can implement a compliance-focused EMS in lieu of administrative or other penalties.

On an international scale, the European Union has integrated environmental management systems into its regulatory structure through a voluntary initiative known as the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme.

Do EMSs really work?

Are environmental management systems really effective in enhancing environmental performance? Like any initiative an organization undertakes, the effort and commitment dedicated to planning and implementing an EMS is a key to success and positive results.

A study conducted by the Multi State Working Group on Environmental Performance, in coordination with the University of North Carolina, provides the strongest support to date that EMS adoption positively affects environmental performance over time and across a variety of environmental indicators and business sectors.

Among other findings, the study concluded that "more than two-thirds of the environmental performance indicators for which a change in performance was reported by the facilities showed improvement, and improved indicator performance was observed in at least half of facility indicators for a majority of these facilities."

More information

For more information on environmental management systems, visit the International Organization for Standardization ISO 14000 information site at

Nick Schnee is an EMS and regulatory consultant with Oasis Environmental in Bainbridge Island.

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