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wanes as focus shifts

Compliance work
wanes as focus shifts

A perhaps unintended consequence of the supposedly business- friendly push for less environmental regulation is a slowdown in one industry: the environmental-compliance field.
The industry–which includes testing laboratories, site-cleanup specialists, environmental lawyers, engineering firms and consultants who advise firms on compliance with a plethora of state and federal regulations–has been in the doldrums, says William Wagner, executive director of the Center for Environmental Information in Rochester.
Business is picking up now, he says, but for a six-month period last year–around the time that it looked like the GOP’s Contract With America agenda could go through–people in the environmental industry were singing a sad tune.
A recent American Bar Association publication went so far as to run an article asking whether the environmental industry is in a recession, says environmental attorney Alan Knauf of Knauf & Craig LLP.
Where in the past labs and engineering firms have had more work than they can handle, a number now are calling him looking for leads, Knauf says.
Others echo Knauf. The environmental-compliance business is not dead or even dying, they say. But it has plateaued.
Much of the reason for the leveling off is that the industry has matured, says Walter Scheible, marketing director for Columbia Analytical Services Inc. A number of regulations have been on the books for 10 to 15 years. Companies have learned how to live with them, and simply do not need to do the amount of testing and other work they used to do to comply.
Companies such as Eastman Kodak Co. and Xerox Corp. have incorporated air and water regulations into operations to the point where compliance has become a matter of course.
At the same time, regulators such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are making clear efforts to be more flexible and user-friendly, and to work with small businesses, giving them more time to comply and cutting them more slack.
Environmental attorney Neal Madden, of Harter, Secrest & Emery, concurs.
Regulation is not as stiff as it was in the 1980s, he says. The slowdown is not necessarily a bad thing, he adds, despite environmentalist objections that regulators and business are getting too cozy.
“Whether it’s real or not, there’s a perception that compliance is not a broad priority, a feeling that state and federal enforcement is not as vigorous as it was,” Madden says. “But there’s a logical reason for that–there’s not as much to enforce.”
It is not that businesses no longer are interested in meeting regulatory demands, but that they have learned how to do so efficiently.
“After 15 years, nobody’s beating down the doors to have compliance explained to them,” Madden says.
In the 1980s, the EPA and DEC sometimes overzealous, Scheible concedes.
Their zealousness meant that while he got a lot more testing work, some of the testing was perhaps not needed. A feeling of “paranoia” among businesses led to such overtesting.
Therefore, if less is being done now, he says, it does not mean that adequate precautions to protect the environment are not being taken.
Knauf says the more relaxed regulatory climate is not always serving as a brake on the industry. New rules on brownfields, for example, will mean more business.
Brownfields are contaminated former industrial sites. Most are located in inner cities.
With some cleanup, they could be put back in use, but many have lain fallow because no one could afford to do cleanups that would meet EPA standards. Recent changes in federal rules have eased requirements for such sites.
Some see the new brownfields policies as too relaxed, but Scheible calls the rules reasonable. Had they not been enacted, some sites might never have been cleaned up, he says.
And not all rules have relaxed.
The federal Superfund law, which defines who must pay for cleanup of a number of specific hazardous waste sites around the country, will continue to be a source of business for environmental attorneys, Madden says.
The law states requires “responsible parties” who own or have owned or have contributed to the contamination of Superfund sites to split cleanup costs.
Despite talk of reforming the law last year, Superfund is still structured in such a way as to encourage responsible parties to work out arrangements on who pays what in court, Madden says.
Still, he notes, business is slower than it was.
Scheible agrees there is less work to split up among the same number of competitors, but says there still is enough work to go around.
In any case, he adds: “People will just have to learn to do other things.”

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