The start of a new calendar year is a great time to take stock of your environmental management system and assess whether or not it is up-to-date and working effectively. Away from the pressures of mid-year budgeting and closing out troublesome environmental issues, the first quarter of 2015 should be a good time to critically review your EMS.

In this eBulletin, we examine three basic core components of any good EMS and raise some useful questions for your business to consider with regard to identifying risks and obligations, taking action and developing good audit systems.

Each organisation is unique and necessarily has its own approach to environmental compliance. Whichever way your organisation chooses to address environmental management, the key components of an effective environmental management system are the same.

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Identification of legal obligations and risks

The cornerstone of an effective EMS is the identification of environmental risks and legal obligations. A range of tools and approaches are used by different organisations, from simple free standing risk and legal obligations registers, to sophisticated management software which incorporates management and reporting tools.

Whichever approach is used, it is always essential to undertake a periodic review of the legal obligations applicable to your site(s) to ensure that you are minimising your risk of non-compliance. This is particularly the case for organisations wishing to minimise risk, not simply with regard to pollution legislation, but across the broad spectrum of environmental regulation including planning, development, and safety.

Legal developments, and related changes to policy and guidelines, occur frequently. So at a minimum, organisations should review their legal obligations registers annually and update as necessary. Similarly, as site activities can change year to year, it is important to keep your environmental risk register up-to-date to take into account new and emerging risks.

Implementation and action!

Once you are comfortable that you have correctly identified your environmental risks and legal obligations, the next step is to implement systems to minimise and eliminate these risks. In some cases, it will be necessary to make operational changes or dedicate resources to physical works; in others it will be necessary to develop procedures or policies for personnel to use.

A key component of effective implementation is the training of personnel, from senior management to operational teams, to ensure that they understand their environmental obligations (both from a personal liability perspective and with regard to the organisation). Good training might include not only general obligations, but also incident response, and how to deal with environmental regulators.

Checks and audits

An important part of effective environmental compliance and management is the need to assess how well the environmental management system is working. Whilst there are some upsides to assessments being conducted internally, "audit" processes are one area where many organisations expose themselves to unnecessary risk. An organisation's audit process needs to be established with regard to not only the specific environmental risks of the organisation, but also the organisation's compliance and enforcement track record.

At its most basic, the organisation needs to respond to the risk of an audit process documenting a failure to meet a legal obligation (or a self-imposed standard) and that document subsequently being discoverable in legal proceedings, by an environmental regulator, or by a third party.  Properly done, an environmental audit will let you know about your organisation's performance, but without that risk. There are various state and territory voluntary audit legal processes that can be taken advantage of where non-compliance is suspected and rectification required. Seeking legal input on appropriate audit structures is therefore important.