How to work effectively with the regulatory agencies

Being able to work effectively with the regulatory agencies is a critical element in any Environmental Management System. If you have a cordial and professional working relationship with your agencies, you are more than half way there. On the other hand, if your approach is to constantly maintain an adversarial or antagonistic relationship with the agencies, you will be spending much of your valuable time and limited resources on a rather unproductive endeavor. Here are some practical and “field-tested” pointers on how you can develop a professional and effective working relationship with the regulatory agencies. 

1.      Do your homework. You should always research the problem areas or issues that you want to get resolved with the agency. Check to see if there are any specific considerations that should be brought up. See if another company has resolved a similar problem with the same agency and find out what the solution is. You should also research any applicable precedents outside of your agency’s jurisdiction that may be pertinent to your case so that you can share them with the agency. What you are doing here is in effect giving the agency a certain level of comfort in knowing that other agencies have resolved similar issues. You are giving them coverage. 

2.      Make a point of meeting the agency staff before you submit your permit application. Lay out your preferred approach and get to know the “case worker” or permit writer who will be handling your application. Always try to make a point of paying a courtesy “get-to-know-you” kind of visit. At the very least, phone the person at the agency and introduce yourself. In many cases, you will be pleasantly surprised by how cooperative the agency staff can be. Keep in mind that it is also to the agency’s advantage to work things out amiably with your company. A professional working relationship with you can and will save them time as well. Try to deal with the agency staff from their perspective – try to put yourself in their shoes. 

3.      Never attack the agency’s regulations in front of the agency staff – no matter how you personally feel about the regulations. It does not matter how nonsensical you may feel about those regulations. Keep your personal opinion to yourself. Remember that it is the agency’s job to enforce the regulations. If you don’t like a particular set of environmental regulations, the time to make your point is during the promulgation (public comment) process. Attacking the agency staff will not enhance your working relationship one iota. All it does is antagonizes the staff and works against your final objective – resolution of a problem you have before the agency. Remember this one too – they have the laws that you don’t like on their side.  4.      You can (and often should) challenge the regulations and argue your case with your “case worker”. State your case clearly and objectively. And again make sure you don’t make it personal. Remember this – everything is negotiable (both sides can win in a negotiated settlement). But as soon as you make it personal, the issue rapidly degenerates into a zero-sum game (allowing one winner and one loser). You want to avoid that as much as possible because more often than not you will end up being the loser.  Here is a true story: One Fortune 500 company had a wastewater discharge permit issue before the regulatory agency.  The plant manager hired a local consultant who was very knowledgeable about the technical issues and the local regulations. Unfortunately he also held some very strong personal views about the regulations and he took it upon himself on numerous occasions to express his views about the regulations and the agency staff who enforced them. He told the staff that they were stupid and ignorant to be enforcing such bad regulations – at face-to-face meetings with the agencies! This went on for many months and the permit application went absolutely nowhere until this local consultant was eventually fired and replaced by a much more personable and equally competent consultant. The relationship between the company and the agency took a dramatic turn for the better. But the company lost many months in the permitting process. The moral of the story is this: Be very careful how you choose the consultants to represent you before an agency. Make sure your consultant has the right temperment  

5.      If there is a deliverable involved, you might want to bounce the draft off the agency staff informally (in a face-to-face meeting if possible) before you submit it formally. Some agencies like that idea – especially if you have established some sort of rapport with them. This approach gives them a chance to preview what is coming down the pike. Often times they will give you some timesaving suggestions that you can incorporate into your final application. 

6.      Always submit your documents to the agency on time. It is a matter of common courtesy to deliver what you promise in a timely manner. You expect timely delivery from your material suppliers  – so why shouldn’t the regulatory agencies expect the same from you? 

7.      Never miss a deadline that you have agreed to with the agency. Why? Because it makes the agency look bad if you fail to meet the deadline. More important, it makes the person who negotiated the agreement with you look very bad. For example, if you enter into some kind of consent agreement with the agency to do certain tasks, you want to make sure that the deadlines specified in the agreement are met. Make sure you have the resources to complete the tasks at hand and meet the deadline. The consent agreement is a contract between your company and the agency. Failure to meet the agreed-to deadlines means you have broken your promise with the agency.  

8.      Work across the table and solicit suggestions from the agency.  There have been instances when an agency official would go out of his way to help the regulated community by suggesting different approaches to the problem at hand. This happens only when there is trust and rapport between the parties.  

9.      Avoid getting caught between the federal EPA and your state agency. If your dealings require the approval of both agencies, say in the case of a federal wastewater discharge permit in a state that has not been delegated the authority to issue the permit, you want to make sure both agencies know what you are doing. Keep all parties informed by email or meeting notes. Don’t count on the federal and local agencies to keep each other informed of your progress. 

The bottom line of all of this is very simple. Treat agency personnel the same way you would like to be treated – with courtesy and professionalism. Experience shows that this common sense management approach goes a long way.


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