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Building Agency Partnerships for Successful Environmental Permitting

It’s that time of the year again – you have a permitting project and you need to engage your local, state or federal environmental permitting agency. Maybe you have an exciting new facility expansion project or maybe it’s just time to reissue that old, expiring permit. Either way, this is probably not your favorite aspect of the job, and you might be running through a range of emotions from minor inconvenience to deep dread. For many folks, this is as stressful as your job gets – but it doesn’t have to be. With a better understanding of the people, some insight into the process, and the right support, your environmental permitting project can run smoothly. In this blog, we will be exploring some of the challenges and actions you can take to decrease the stress of working with your permitting agencies and streamline the permitting process.

First, it’s always helpful to understand some basic “truths” about permitting agencies, staff and processes:

  • First, regulatory agencies are usually working from a slightly different perspective than you. Of course, they care about supporting you and your business but they are also trying to anticipate and manage issues such political pressure, public interest, changing local, state and federal laws and policies, and broader priority and consistency issues.  It can sometimes feel like the permitting agency is dragging its feet, but, from an agency perspective, these are exactly the issues that can delay a permit later on if not managed properly early on in the process.

Your assigned permit writer may or may not be an “expert”. Just like nearly every organization, a permitting agency typically has a wide variety of staff with different experiences, knowledge and abilities.  Permitting agencies are training new staff constantly to fill the gaps left by staff departures. The training process can often take a few years and, in the meantime, it is likely that you will be working with a permit writer who is still learning the regulations, permitting processes and your specific permit. And even if you do get a more seasoned permitting writer, keep in mind that their expertise is in environmental regulation and permit writing. An experienced permit writer has typically worked on literally hundreds of permits of all types: municipal facilities, power generation, paper processing, mining, manufacturing… you name it. What that means is that they probably know a little (or sometimes quite a bit!) about a lot of facilities, but they are not operational experts on all the moving parts of your business. That’s simply not what they are trained to do.

  • Agency staff are usually working under challenging processes and priorities. Budgets are tight. They may be down a position (or a dozen), and they may not have the best tools (ex: software/hardware) that money can buy. Additionally, staff are usually juggling multiple projects and your permit may not be their top priority.

At this point, you may be feeling even more confused and disheartened with the possibility that your permit has any chance of being issued within what you consider a reasonable time frame. But, take heart, there are some things you can do to really improve your chances of having a faster and smoother permitting experience:

  • Identify your regulatory agency’s permit team right away. Not only your “point” permit writer but also the leadership and supporting staff such as engineers, hydrologists, soil scientists, compliance person, etc.  Knowing all the players will help you anticipate needs and identify potential roadblocks.
  • Understand your regulatory agency team members’ “style”. Find out how they want to connect with you and your team:
    • Do they prefer to have all the project information at once or a more iterative process?
    • Do they like face-to-face meetings or video conferences?
    • Do they want a pre-application meeting at your facility to better understand the project?
    • Should you schedule weekly check-in meetings or will they get back to you with updates?

These are just a few of the many questions that should get answered right away.   Everybody is different and understanding your agency staff’s unique style can get the project started “on the right foot” by clarifying expectations, minimizing misunderstandings and building positive relationships.

  • Plan on investing in those relationships with agency staff. It may feel like additional time (that you probably don’t feel like you have!), but good relationships, built on trust and open communication, will really pay off down the road when your project inevitably runs into a snag or two. Be intentional. It sometimes helps to think of agency staff as members of your team because, after all, they are.
  • Help your agency team understand your operation. Because they are not experts in your facility and process it is worth your time to ensure that the agency team understands your process, equipment, and day-to-day operations. In the absence of information, most agency staff will make conservative assumptions that may or may not be representative of your facility and you may end up with overly burdensome requirements.
  • Finally, get the right support. We all know that complex problems often require experts. And that’s no different for many permitting projects. Finding the right consultant can really help your permitting project run smoother and faster. Besides being experts on the regulations, the best consultants already know the agencies including the “insider” processes and people.  They’ve spent years building positive relationships with agency staff and their insight can really provide a jump-start to your next permitting project. These types of “relationship-building” experiences are often overlooked by regulated parties as they consider the qualifications of consultants. Which is unfortunate because it sometimes is the single most important factor to a permitting project success.

Braun Intertec consultants can help with your project needs and assist you in your working relationship with your regulatory agencies. Register for our webinar on January 28th, where environmental professionals, Jeff Smith and Jennifer Adams will cover how to strategically build these relationships to reduce your regulatory burden and yield better project results.

Jeff Smith Director, Environmental Compliance & Permitting

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