The Paradox of Compliance

Frequently, it is regulatory compliance, or more specifically, regulatory enforcement, that brings environmental awareness to a company or organization. Some of the best programs and hardest working companies got their environmental start with a good old-fashioned regulatory spanking. Many see increased regulation and enforcement as the only real solution to environmental restoration. This is unfortunate, but the stick is obviously effective to some extent.

The contradiction of compliance is revealed after a decent environmental effort is under way. Once momentum is built, it can be stifled or stopped altogether because of regulatory compliance. This is also unfortunate.

When we start bragging about getting all of the boxes checked and all of the regulators happy, we have a tendency to ease up on the gas. Why spend more money, or time and energy on getting above the bar of barely getting by? It can be a tough sale to management, contractors, and even stormwater professionals.

The truth is that mere compliance is never enough.  If EPA isn’t getting sued from both sides – one always wanting more and the other always wanting less, then something is out of whack. Regulation is created to apply to the masses in a way that is economically achievable and just barely politically palatable to society. Clearly, the quality of our Nation’s waters needs more. Voluntary extra effort and self-set standards reaching above regulatory compliance are required.

The business case is largely based on risk and reward, but not just looking at the chances of getting caught or fined – those odds are very much stacked in the favor of the operator. The risk of living at mere compliance is similar to the risk of living on the edge in any area. Except that in the world of stormwater, most of the variables that can sink us, cost us, delay us, or at least create headache for us are way beyond our control. And just getting by really doesn’t have much of a pay-out.

However, the benefits of raising our own standards and achieving a bit more than is expected are priceless. Not only does compliance and it’s shallow benefits come along collaterally, but a larger audience is touched. When our neighbors, community, and advocate-friends see that we have gone above and beyond (the effort is easy to spot), they start to see us differently. When we show that we are interested in doing a good job and protecting some of their favorite places, we move from being a heartless industry, corporation, or construction site to being human. Once we make it into the category of human being, we are then capable of making mistakes, just like our former detractors. When care is shown above compliance-mindedness, understanding and grace often follows. If anyone needs regulatory civil understanding and grace, it is us.

Environmental regulatory compliance can force a bad actor to get in line, but it can also keep a good organization from becoming great.