Battle of the Acronyms
Breaking down EASR, ECA and the environmental compliance approval process.
Government rules and regulations can be challenging for any business. From tax to employment law, it can be difficult for a company to be compliant in every area. Environmental rules can prove the most baffling because they probably apply to you but you may not know it. You may not own a factory or production facility, but you cannot assume the rules don’t apply to your company.
In Ontario, any business that releases pollutants into the air, land or water or stores, transports or disposes of waste or even emits noise emissions is required to have an environmental approval from the renamed Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MOECP). This means everything from light manufacturing to commercial printing facilities and bakeries need to be in compliance. Environmental compliance is not a new concept. Since the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) came into force in the 1970s, an Approval from the Ministry of the Environment was required but non-compliance was high mostly due to a lack of awareness and understanding of the rules.
While the application and approval process has become more streamlined recently, there is still a high level of non-compliance from people who don’t realize the rules apply to them. Some have operated for more than 20 years and only recently realized they needed a permit when a Ministry official came onsite and ordered them to secure one by a set deadline or face a stop work order. Securing your environmental permit is not only important to your operations but your reputation as well.
Sinking Under the Old System
Under the old system, businesses applied for a Certificate of Approval (CofA). This is now known as an Environmental Compliance Approval (ECAs) and is essentially the same as the CofA. Every company needs an approval to operate.
Previously, applicants had to wait years for their application to be reviewed and hopefully approved. Some reported waiting as long as five to seven years. It was rare to get approved within the year because the Ministry was inundated by applications from facilities big and small regardless of the risk level.
Legally, it meant the business could not break ground on construction or operate without the appropriate approvals. However, the Ministry was well aware of the backlog and the high level of non-compliance so if operations proceeded without it, there were usually little to no consequences. In an effort to streamline the process, reduce wait times and bring businesses into compliance, the Ministry launched a modernization process which created two compliance pathways rather than one.
EASR vs. ECA: Determining the Right Approval for Your Operation
The new system now has two forms of approvals: Environmental Compliance Approval (ECA), and Environmental Activity and Sector Registry (EASR). There are a number of similarities between the two. They both require air and noise studies to be conducted before any permit application can begin. Both will provide an approval to discharge contaminants into the environment but the one you apply for depends on the nature of your business and what you are emitting.
Generally, an ECA is required for larger and more complicated operations with a higher potential for environmental impacts. For example, oil refineries, sewage treatment facilities or ready-mix concrete manufacturing fall into this category.
The EASR applies to most commercial and light industrial facilities and is used for more common activities or operations that pose lesser risk to the environment and human health. This includes automotive refinishing facilities, commercial printing facilities and bakeries. All eligible activities that do not have an existing ECA are required to be registered with the EASR, unless they are entirely exempt. For example, this does not apply to residential or basic commercial properties such as an office building.
Even with these definitions, some facilities can cause confusion. A large shopping mall for example may have to apply for an EASR or could be completely exempt. It depends on the tenants of the building. If the building has a maintenance shop or any light commercial facilities, you may need an EASR. However, if the mall is setting up an HVAC system, the heating and air conditioning might be completely exempt from any provincial requirements.
Noise is considered a contaminant and as such, environmental approvals also apply. The EPA governs the two levels of approvals and it was initially focused on limiting pollution and contaminants. For quite some time, the Ministry did not have a formal reporting mechanism to handle noise issues.
At that time, if your facility had no air emissions but did emit noise, you did not need to apply for a permit. Noise was essentially the “stepchild” of the process and wasn’t formally included into the regulations until the early 2000s when the Ministry started to address noise as a form of pollution. Today, facilities such as transformer stations that have noise emissions but no air emissions are required to go through the EASR process.
Timelines for EASR vs. ECA
There are some similarities in the application process. Both the ECA and EASR require air and noise studies and a technical report, but currently only the EASR is required to be completed by a professional engineer.
The big difference comes down to timing of approvals. The EASR application is uploaded online and the permit is granted instantly. Unlike the previous permit system, companies invest their time with the consulting team they bring in to prepare and submit documentation which is generally a matter of a few weeks. This is the new standard and reduces the number of applications reviewed by the Ministry.
The ECA application usually takes longer because it is reviewed by the Ministry before the permit is granted. However, it is much quicker than in the past. Having now cleared the backlog of applications, the Ministry has a one-year service guarantee which means they will review and provide an approval for higher risk ECA applications within one year.
However, there is one word of caution. The Ministry`s clock starts when you submit the application but if they have any questions or issues with the application, the clock stops and restarts once the issue has been fixed. For this reason, getting the application done correctly the first time is imperative. Engaging a qualified professional engineer the first time to prepare the report can usually avoid Ministry follow ups and delay.
In addition to provincial requirements, companies also need to be sensitive to potential municipal regulations. The city may require permits as well. For example, the City of Oakville has a bylaw requiring facilities which emit certain contaminants to obtain a municipal air emissions approval before they can begin operations. It’s critical for building owners to research and understand any applicable rules at the municipal level.
Changes that Impact Existing Approvals
Once you secure your ECA or EASR, keep in mind that any changes to the facility require an update to your documentation. For example, if you change the cooling towers in a facility – even if it is the same size, capacity and rating – the Ministry requires you to provide an update because permits are often provided based on the specific make and model of the unit.
When there are changes, you must update your documentation, reports and modelling. This is critical when purchasing a facility with the intention of making some improvements up front. Ensure you secure an engineering consultant to revise the modelling, update the report and submit to ensure you are still operating in compliance.
It’s worth noting that even if there are no changes at all, the reports must be updated every 10 years.
Hiring Help: Avoid Poorly Prepared Reports
While the Ministry faced a backlog of applications, it also had to deal with thousands of poorly prepared reports. While streamlining the process, the Ministry provided a clear outline about the information to be included on applications and created a mechanism for flagging reports that did not meet the standard. By requiring professional engineers to complete the report, those falling below the standard can be reported to the regulatory body, the Professional Engineers Ontario.
Once you determine which permit applies to your operations, take the time to find a professional to complete your requirements. An experienced engineering consultant with a firm understanding of the regulations can make the overall environmental compliance application process smoother and assist with conducting the appropriate noise studies and drafting technical reports.
Getting it right the first time is the objective. If your noise report is found to be faulty, you could lose your permit or even be forced to shut down operations until the revised report is approved.
Nicholas Sylvestre-Williams is a principal at Mississauga, Ont.- based Aercoustics Engineering Limited, an acoustic consulting and engineering firm specializing in acoustic design, noise control and vibration control.