Though Susan Vance spun her wheels for more than a year and a half, she was determined to achieve her goals. Vance and her team at the Butler County Department of Environmental Services (BCDES) were set on starting up an environmental management system (EMS) in 2001, and nothing was going to stop them.
“We initially formed an internal team of employees and used the National Biosolids Partnership (NBP) guidelines and tried to move the EMS process along on our own,” says Vance, director of the Ohio department. “We quickly learned this was not going to work.”
Much like Sisyphus—the Greek mythological character eternally doomed to roll a rock up the same hill over and over—the BCDES was not going to give up on its quest to become compliant with federal EMS guidelines.
First, they hired a consultant familiar with the International Organization for Standardization, commonly called ISO. Since the consultant had never worked with a biosolids environmental management system, that plan was scrapped.
The BCDES then decided to sign up with the NBP's program (overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and became a demonstration agency in round two of the pilot program. The commitment paid off. After three years, the agency achieved EMS certification.
But like Sisyphus, the BCDES will never be done.
“These programs are based on systems for continual improvement,” says Vance. “We are audited internally and externally on an aggressive schedule, so the systems continue to grow and change as our business grows and changes.”
Butler County is not unique in its quest. Much like other public works entities across the nation, the county saw the benefits in setting up a program to ensure that tasks are done the same way every time. Setting up standard operating procedures and rigorous training protocols has made the BCDES—and other organizations just like it—more proactive. EMS improves upon a department's ability to meet regulatory standards, correct problems after they've been identified, and use the documented problem—and subsequent answer—as a future training exercise.
But the process isn't cheap. “We spent about $100,000 to set up our environmental management system,” says Rick Pence, general manager of solid waste in Scottsdale, Ariz. The city worked on a pilot program with the EPA starting in 1997. The three-year study paid off, and the city was recognized in 2000. It's the only municipality to be EMS-compliant in every department. The cost of keeping the plan updated is paid out of the public works department's operations and maintenance budget, so the cost is simply built in to annual expenses.
“For us, it's a corporate culture,” says Pence. Scottsdale promotes innovation and public stewardship across all its departments, which trickles down to all employees directly and indirectly associated with the EMS procedures.
Sounds simple, you say: Make your solid waste, fleet, or wastewater department “green” and streamline your processes, and you're good to go.
Not so fast. There's often a large cost for implementation, and third-party audits are often required. The wastewater division in Eugene, Ore., for example, spent about $8300 for its first external certification audit in 2001.
The city hired a consulting firm to do a gap analysis that assessed its existing practices for conformance to the ISO 14001 standard, implemented a core EMS team representing all of the different operational work groups in the wastewater division, used a consultant to do initial training, and then developed the rest of the program in-house using the ISO 14001 standard.
“They interpreted the results of the gap analysis, which identified those elements of our existing practices that needed modification to conform to the ISO requirements,” says Donna Adams, environmental health and safety coordinator.
Getting the whole team involved is the key to building an environmental management system. “We formed an internal team of 12 employees, and we dedicated one staff member with the title of ‘EMS coordinator'to oversee and coordinate all aspects of the EMS program,” says Ohio's Vance. “In addition, the NBP provided us with resources in the form of a consulting firm, and also a wonderful network of other agencies that were either at the same point in the process or were further along to help guide us.”
Vance, Adams, and Pence recommend a few pointers for setting up an EMS, and then keeping it running smoothly:
- Use input from a variety of areas of expertise
- Don't be intimidated by the ISO standards
- Don't reinvent the wheel—take what you already have in place and report it better
- Dedicate staff to coordinate the program
- Roll everything, including document control, into one system
- Publicize it internally and externally
- Make the process fun for employees.
And all echo the same caution: Don't try to do it all on your own. Preliminary information can be found at www.epa.gov/ems, and a host of other sources can be found by doing a simple Web search.