In today’s business world, we face an interesting paradox. On one hand, we have a seemingly endless supply of information. On the other, we face more uncertainty and ambiguity. This is true with environmental compliance as well.
Environmental regulations are increasing in both number and complexity, which all boils down to one thing: gray areas.
In working with the SCAQMD and EPA, I’ve come to realize that rules are, at first glance, black and white. Anyone can open a set of rules and recite what is stated, but where things get interesting is when you try and implement those rules in a specific industrial process.
Rules are concrete. They tell you exactly what you can and cannot do to comply with the regulations. The challenge comes when you try to take what is black and white and apply it to a process that operates on a continuum. Doing so will reveal the rule’s gray areas faster than reading the federal register will put you to sleep.
As a practicing environmental professional, I believe your ability to maintain compliance is largely dependent on how well you can manage gray areas. This is seen in the corporate world as well.
In 2014, Joann Lublin published an article in the Wall Street Journal in which she said the ability to manage gray areas was a red-hot skill:
At a turbulent time in business more U.S. companies pick and promote executives who thrive amid ambiguity, coaches and recruiters say. These leaders don’t flinch at uncertainty, surprises, conflicting directions, multiple demands — or knotty problems with no clear answers.
Furthermore, Scott Anthony has argued that a business leader’s success depends on their ability to better shift from matters of size to matters of ambiguity.
In other words, leaders should develop their abilities to deal with ambiguity and gray areas instead of their abilities to effectively manage large organizations.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s rules are full of gray areas, from matters ranging from permitting applicability to how to comply with rules for a continuous emissions monitoring system (CEMS).
Considering all of this, what can an air quality professional do to better manage gray areas when working with the SCAQMD’s rules? Here are three suggestions:
1. Expect gray areas when dealing with SCAQMD’s regulations.
As I mentioned earlier, any industrial process will find the gray areas of a rule in a blink. When dealing with the SCAQMD’s regulations, expect gray areas — no matter how simple a rule may seem.
Also, understand that the SCAQMD’s rules are not perfect. Every facility is unique, so it’s not unusual that a situation crops up where there’s a problem with a rule that no one has experienced before. A seasoned air quality professional will anticipate that such problems will occur and develop a system and methodology for properly dealing with them.
2. Develop a team that can help you make decisions regarding gray areas.
Due to our cognitive biases, making decisions about a gray issue should not be done alone but rather with a team, which can be comprised of air quality professionals who are either on staff or outside contractors. Where they are in your organization matters less than knowing who they are when you need them.
3. Get as much information as you can about your situation.
Air quality rules are highly contextual, so a rule’s requirements can change depending on the circumstances. When you encounter such a gray area, try to get as much information as you can about the issue you’re up against. At the same time, remember that possessing too much information can lead to diminishing returns.
They may not have a section on “Navigating the AQMD’s Gray Areas” in the Certified Permitting Professional training course, but perhaps they should. Being able to effectively deal with gray areas will help you not only increase your chances of complying with the AQMD’s regulations, it will also help you increase your chances of advancing your career as an air quality professional.