Inspection Survival for Metal Finishers


Representatives from your EPA Regional office, state environmental agency, regional air district or local sewer authority will show up at your door to conduct an environmental compliance inspection. Knowing what to expect during and after the inspection can help reduce the apprehension you may have about the process. While the scope and intent of environmental compliance inspections may vary, this resource will help prepare you for inspections.

Why Is My Business Being Inspected?

TIP: Don't take it personally. Inspectors from various federal, state, regional and local agencies have the legal authority to enter a facility or private property to conduct an inspection to determine compliance with environmental laws, rules, and regulations.

Inspections may be conducted for numerous reasons, including the following:

  • Unprompted inspections of regulated activities by an authorized agency to determine compliance with specific requirements. Some agencies perform inspections on a set schedule, for example, once per year or once every five years. In other cases, there may not be a set frequency.
  • Compliance inspection for a permit application filed for your facility.
  • Follow-up inspections to check on prior violations.
  • Response to a citizen or employee complaint.
  • Referral from another federal, state, or local agency.

Arrival of the Inspector

TIP: An inspector will arrive at your facility this year. Be certain that your receptionist is prepared to handle the situation in a polite and efficient manner. The receptionist should have a prepared script and a list of who to contact at your facility. Have backups on the list in case someone is off-site. Prior to an inspection, decide where the opening conference is going to take place and escort the inspector there ASAP.

Inspections are usually not pre-arranged but generally occur during regular business hours. In the event of a spill or other emergency, however, an after-hours inspection may be necessary. Upon arriving at the business, the inspector will ask for the facility environmental coordinator or person in charge. The inspector will identify his or her official title and discuss the scope of the inspection activities; all inspectors have official photo identification. In most cases, a single inspector will evaluate only one area of environmental compliance. One or more inspectors may show up to evaluate compliance with all environmental media laws such as those relating to air, water, and waste. This type of inspection is called a multi-media inspection.

What Should I Expect During the Opening Conference?

TIP: If the inspector does not request an opening conference, you should suggest one. A typical opening conference should reveal a brief description of the inspector's intentions and the estimated length of the inspection, as well as provide time to arrange site tours, photograph-taking, and the availability of documents for copying. Take copious notes, these will be needed for your report.

Most inspections begin with an opening conference. This may range from a formal meeting to a brief, informal discussion of the plan for the inspection. It is helpful to include the environmental and safety officer and any other employees who have knowledge of the environmental activities at your facility at the conference. However, any person you plan to include in this meeting should be well prepared.

The inspector may ask about facility operations, including plant layout and processes, management structure, plant safety, and other information relevant to the inspection. The inspector will also identify records he or she will want to review and may either make copies of the records or discuss how copies will be made. Since the inspector will prepare a written report after the inspection, he or she will take notes throughout the entire inspection. The inspector will record information such as facility contacts, plant operations and discussions with facility representatives.

What Kinds of Records Will the Inspector Review?

TIP: Keep your environmental records organized and readily accessible. This will keep the inspection time-efficient and enhance your ability to comply with recordkeeping requirements.

The inspector has the legal authority to have access to and copy records and will generally review records included in the list that follows. The specific records reviewed depend on the area of environmental compliance evaluated by the inspector. For example, a pretreatment inspector most likely will not review air emission data. For multi-media inspections, the inspector(s) may review all the following records:

  • Facility process information (e.g., schematic drawings of plating lines).
  • Material purchasing records.
  • Analytical results for hazardous waste determinations.
  • Air emissions data, wastewater discharge data, and other monitoring data required by permits held by your facility.
  • Annual reports.
  • Self-monitoring data.
  • Operation records.
  • Training records.
  • Waste handling and disposal information (e.g., manifests).
  • Emergency response and spill control procedures and plans.
  • Engineering assessments.
  • Landfill receipts or other bills of lading.

Inspectors will be looking for past records (up to 5 years old) as well as current records. The inspector will compare information contained in the records with what he or she has observed at the facility. It is likely that the inspector will request copies of some documents he or she reviews.

What Should I Expect During the Facility Tour?

TIP: It is recommended that the compliance manager is the only person to interface with the inspector. However, if you plan on having any facility personnel explain how something is done, then be certain that you know exactly what they are going to say before they say it. Take copious notes, these will be needed for your report.

Prior to inspection day, plan the facility tour in a way that presents your operation in a logical manner. You may need to vary this plan somewhat, depending on what is requested and agreed upon during the opening conference. But at least you have a basic plan for explaining what goes on at your facility.

You want the inspector to understand your processes. As such, a good starting point for the tour is your receiving dock. Then proceed through the production process by following the same path as the parts being processed, and then move on to waste treatment and hazardous waste storage. The less confusing the tour is for the inspector, the fewer questions he or she will ask.

Often, inspectors point out violations during the inspection tour. If this occurs, consider fixing the problem immediately, in the presence of the inspector. Although it may not keep the infraction out of the inspector's report, it will demonstrate your willingness to comply.

Examples of problems that can be fixed immediately include:

  • Closing open waste containers,
  • Creating additional aisle space in waste storage areas, or
  • Adding a label to a drum.

Will the Inspector Collect Samples?

TIP: If the inspector collects samples, you will be offered the opportunity to collect duplicate or split samples of the inspector's samples and have them analyzed. You will be required to provide your own sample containers and analytical services.

The inspector has the legal authority to obtain samples of environmental media such as wastewater discharges, waste materials, or air emissions. Sampling is often conducted to document potential evidence of noncompliance or compliance with laws or a permit but can be conducted at the discretion of the inspector. The inspector will carefully document all sampling activities and chain-of-custody procedures will be followed to ensure the validity of the sampling results.

Will the Inspector Take Photographs?

TIP: Keep a log of photographs taken by the inspector and take duplicate photographs for your own records.

The inspector may take photographs of facility operations and environmental activities such as waste treatment equipment, waste and chemical storage areas, sampling devices, and air pollution control equipment. If the inspector takes photographs, you can also take photographs of the subject. You may request that the inspector refrain from photographing proprietary processes not essential to the inspection. If the inspector requests to take photographs of a confidential activity or operation, inform the inspector immediately so that he or she can document the request for business confidentiality.

What Should I Expect During the Closing Conference?

TIP: You should always have a closing conference. If the inspector doesn't plan for one, then you should request it. A conference at the end of the inspection presents a good opportunity to learn what the inspector observed and what they plan to do with that information.

After the inspector has interviewed facility personnel, toured the facility, and collected samples (if necessary), he or she will conduct a closing conference. This conference may range from a formal meeting to a brief, informal discussion. The inspector may review his or her observations and request clarification. The inspector will also identify if further information is needed and coordinate with you regarding when that information will be provided. The inspector will provide general observations about any problems observed at this time, but the final compliance evaluation will be performed after the inspection.

What Should I do After the Inspection?

First, let's talk about a written report that you should prepare. Why should you make extra work for yourself? Well, consider this. Government agencies are not known for speed; it may be a substantial time before you receive any correspondence from the agency regarding the inspection. And, if any enforcement action is taken, this can draw out the process even further. To be certain that you don't forget any important details of the inspection, prepare a written report or account of the inspection, as soon after the inspection as possible. The report should be based on your notes taken during the inspection and it should summarize the inspector's comments, questions, and conclusions. Be sure to include any recommended corrections or non-compliance problems that the inspector identified during the closing conference. Attach any relevant documentation such as handwritten notes, photographs, chain of custody forms, and copies of checklists, etc. provided by the inspector. Date the report.

If enforcement actions are taken and if they ultimately result in litigation, your report will be an asset for your attorney.

No matter how busy you may be with other things, you should be sure to fix all the problems identified during the inspection, as quickly as possible. As mentioned earlier, you may even be able to make some corrections during the inspection, either in the presence of the inspector or at least prior to the closing conference. This shows a willingness to comply and reduces the risk of a fine and/or follow-up inspection.

Within a week of the inspection, send a follow up letter to the inspector. The letter should include information that was unavailable at the time of the inspection, which you agreed to provide and any necessary clarification or corrections to information that you provided. In this letter, you should not volunteer any new information that was not specifically requested by the inspector.

List any corrective actions that you took during the inspection or after the inspection. By doing so, you may be able to head off an enforcement action.

This letter is also a good opportunity to highlight the positive activities that your company is doing regarding compliance and pollution prevention. You may have discussed some of these activities during the inspection, but they are worth repeating in the letter, which will most likely be shared by the inspector with his boss, who may have a greater appreciation for your dedication and hard work than the inspector.

What Happens Next?

TIP: A facility inspection can be either the beginning or the end of the agency's enforcement process. Based on what happens and what the inspector finds during the inspection, the agency will decide what to do next. It could decide whether further investigation is necessary, or even whether enforcement action is appropriate. Accordingly, it is essential that a company do everything possible to be prepared and responsive before, during, and after an agency inspection.

Businesses are often concerned about what may happen after the inspection if problems are found. It is unlikely that the agency will take steps to stop activities at a business unless those activities are causing or contributing substantial harm to the environment or public health and welfare.

If violations are found during the inspection, the agency will follow up with actions aimed at correcting the problems. A written notification will be sent to the facility that explains the alleged violations and it may recommend how to correct the problems. The facility may request a meeting with the agency to discuss the alleged violations, the recommended corrective actions, and the timeframes for implementation of corrective actions.

More Information

What to Expect From and Environmental Compliance Inspection, Illinois EPA, July 2002, portions of this resource were adapted from this reference.

US EPA How We Monitor Compliance. An overview of inspection procedures.

US EPA Next Generation Compliance. EPA is improving compliance by taking advantage of new tools and approaches while strengthening vigorous enforcement of environmental laws.

US EPA Resources and Guidance Documents for Compliance Monitoring. Compliance monitoring and inspection manuals for various media and sectors and related resources.



The information contained in this site is provided for your review and convenience. It is not intended to provide legal advice with respect to any federal, state, or local regulation.
You should consult with legal counsel and appropriate authorities before interpreting any regulations or undertaking any specific course of action.

Please note that many of the regulatory discussions on STERC refer to federal regulations. In many cases, states or local governments have promulgated relevant rules and standards
that are different and/or more stringent than the federal regulations. Therefore, to assure full compliance, you should investigate and comply with all applicable federal, state and local regulations.