Guest Column | February 21, 2014

Occupational Safety And Utility Compliance: Tips for Surviving A Regulatory Plant Inspection

Sheldon Primus

By Sheldon Primus


Whether the name is the State Department of Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Water Quality, or some other name, the agency can strike fear in municipalities when they inspect the plant. It is not that most plants have something to hide or are discharging inferior water, but no one likes to be under the microscope. Let alone under the microscope of a regulatory agency with the power to fine the utility.

As a former chief operator and plant superintendent, I know the anxiety it brings when you have to escort an inspector throughout the process. However, there are a few tips that I learned along the way to keep these inspections cordial and even welcomed. There is no magic formula for pleasing regulators, but there are steps that the utility management can make to satisfy the regulatory agencies.

Know Your Permit Inside And Out
Each treatment works falls under the Clean Water Act of 1971, that created the National Pollution Discharge and Eliminations System (NPDES) permits to regulate facilities that discharge to water bodies or treat wastewater. Each plant has standard that must be meet such as Performance-based standards or Narrative standards.

Performance-based standards are technically derived from the technology of the treatment that the plant utilizes.

Narrative standards are simply a statement directed to the plant to state a level of compliance that cannot be exceeded.

Inspectors use your NPDES permit as the guide to whether or not you plant is in compliance in the following areas:

  • Compliance Evaluation Inspection (CEI)
  • Compliance Sampling Inspection (CSI)
  • Performance Audit Inspection  (PAI)
  • Fifth Year Inspection (FYI) (Smicherko 2003)

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) compliance agent explains each of these Inspections as:

  • CEI- This is a general evaluation for the compliance schedules, laboratory, sampling procedures, records, reports, flow measurements, Effluent, Disposal, residual management, and O&M for the plant.
  • CSI- The agency samples the facility’s effluent to determine if guidelines are meet.
  • PAI- This is an in-depth evaluation and audit for the facility and laboratory, including sampling methods, sampling points, and paperwork (i.e.: chain of custody sheets, labeling, initials, and certifications)
  • FYI- Does a priority pollutants and toxicity screening (Smicherko 2003).

Knowing your permit gives the utility direction as goals and specific criteria it must hit in order to pass an inspection. The plant performance that does better than the permit requirement will announce to the inspector that the facility is top notch plant.

The Inspection

Announced Inspections
Some inspectors give a complimentary call to let you know their intention to inspect within a certain time period. That gives the utility time to:

  • Review plant performance
  • Clean the plant grounds and high travel areas
  • Verify all documents are in order
    • Current permit and modifications
    • Facility record drawings
    • Operator licenses
    • Calibration and maintenance records
  • Check and repair maintenance issues in the facility that relate to critical plant components.

A trained inspector will look at a facility to check for access control, the overall condition of the process tanks, grounds, and odors. Well run plants will look the part and give an air of competency to the regulatory inspector.  Pay attention to detail when cleaning the plant and checking for deficiencies. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Why is that hose running along the clarifier catwalk?
  • Does this hose bib have a backflow prevention device?
  • Is the plant permit and O&M manual readily available to the staff?
  • Are all the sample points marked?
  • What does Headwork and the Sludge building look like now?
  • Where are the areas that produce odors and why?
  • Have all of the flow meters, instrumentation, and other meters been calibrated in compliance with the permit?

Unannounced Inspections
Each compliance inspector reserves the right to inspect a treatment plant at any time without prior approval or appointment. Therefore, the well managed plant will be prepared for an impromptu inspection with minimal disruption to the plant. The best way to be a step ahead is using a detailed plant checklist. This list must include check for each stage of the process and based on the PAI or past compliance inspection. Each shift should conduct the inspection at least once, but twice a shift is preferable.

The Walkthrough
This face to face interaction is paramount to the success of the inspection and future inspections. A strong handshake and genuine smile makes a great first impression. Then follow up that greeting with knowledge of the permit, calibration records, and other compliance paperwork.

During the walkthrough, answer all questions asked without trying to over explain anything. Take the inspector on the most direct route through all the treatment trains and avoid problem areas. Why create more questions than necessary by taking the easy path through the area that isn’t inspection ready?

Author Sheldon Primus (left) provides consultation for inspections.

Inspection Tips

  • Take notes during the walkthrough,
  • Take pictures wherever they take pictures (from the same angle),
  • Make conversation to lighten the mood,
  • Find out what you can about the inspector, such as past inspection histories, time on the job, background in process control and treatment plants,
  • Don’t let the grumpiest operator do the inspection.

At the end of the inspection, make sure you understand exactly what deficiencies were discovered and steps for abatement. Ask the inspector for the specific timeframe that the utility has to respond in writing to the noted issues. In addition, make sure to exchange contact information with direct lines for effective communication.

After the inspector leaves, use the inspections as a topic to meet with upper management and the staff at different times to review the process and findings. The plant superintendent can then make adjustments to the operator checklist, maintenance practices, and laboratory procedures. Every inspection can be a valuable tool for the utility and a catalyst to plant awards.