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Understanding California's Environmental Regulatory Framework

By BBJ Group | July 09, 2019

Understanding California's Environmental Regulatory Framework

Written by Phil Thomas, who works in BBJ Group's California Office

Ahhh, California. The land of sandy surf boards,..'round-the-clock Pilates classes and In-N-Out Burger. The home of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood sign and…the most robust and carefully planned environmental regulatory framework in the nation. While that last attribute doesn’t quite exude the same breezy, glamorous charm as the others, it sure does do a superb job of keeping the state clean and beautiful for its residents and visitors to enjoy that fabled California lifestyle now and well into the future.

Just hearing about California’s set of comprehensive and rigorous environmental rules and their substantial supporting cast of regulatory agencies tasked with oversight and enforcement can be vastly intimidating for businesses looking to expand operations within the state or begin a new project that has environmental implications. It can also have a disheartening, menacing effect on new managers responsible for keeping compliance in California on a regular basis. Yes, California is indeed an environmentally progressive state with stringent guidelines that must be followed. However, are these potentially paralyzing fears and reservations— omnipresent and verbalized regularly within business circles—fully warranted? Can anything be done to mitigate their impacts within decision-making processes?

Like anything else in life and business, the more familiar you are with something, the less frightening it becomes. My simple suggestion for anyone unnerved by California’s regulations and regulators is to invest some time to learn more about them. Performing some online research, placing a call or two into your local, friendly regulatory agency helpdesk (or consultant) with a question or perhaps even attending a conference (more on this later) can help to make environmental compliance seem more obtainable as the dreaded fear of non-compliance incidents slowly begins to subside. Knowledge is power and awareness is confidence.

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Unless you enjoy a nice, month-long read through the phone book–sized California Health and Safety Code, an ideal place to start your journey for optimal understanding of California’s environmental regulatory framework is with the primary agency responsible for administering, overseeing and enforcing most of California’s environmental laws and regulations, the CUPA. Pronounced “Koopa” (1980’s video game enthusiasts may remember the turtle-like antagonists to Super Mario), CUPA is an acronym for Certified Unified Program Agency and applies to local agencies—in most cases either city or county level—that have been granted authority by the state to run environmental programs related to:

  • Hazardous waste generation and treatment (tiered permitting)
  • Hazardous materials storage (certain minimum quantities apply)
  • Business and emergency response plans (filed and reviewed electronically in a secure state-run website called California Environmental Reporting System or CERS)
  • Hazardous spills and releases prevention and response
  • Underground storage tanks (UST)
  • The Aboveground Petroleum Storage Act (APSA)

There are currently 81 CUPA agencies within the state of California, but that number can fluctuate a little over time as additional agencies are granted certification or some drop out of the program or are absorbed into other CUPA agencies. Every business within the state falls under the jurisdiction of exactly one (1) CUPA, and that CUPA serves as a contact point—the “face” if you will—for a number of statewide environmental health and safety agencies, including the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA), the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), as well as several others.

The neat thing about the CUPA program is that it is locally driven. Your inspectors and administrative contacts are physically located within the same city or county as you, not in the state capital hundreds of miles away.  They are normally exceptionally familiar with your town, your street, your neighbors and your business and are available to speak with you on the phone or make themselves accessible for in-person meetings with a little notice. Not sure what CUPA agency serves your business? Click here and enter your business’s address at right to receive the name and contact information for your CUPA.

Sometimes, the CUPA agency can’t do it all by themselves. In certain cases, depending on your location, participating agencies (or PAs) may have a role in administering or enforcing one or more of the program elements described above, and while these agencies have not been granted full CUPA authority, they work closely with CUPA to ensure that all of the state-mandated environmental programs are being properly administered. If your business has a PA on record in addition to the CUPA, it may be beneficial to learn what roles and responsibilities that agency has over your business and in some cases, expect additional annual inspection activity and administrative follow-up. The CUPA search link provided above provides PA names and contact information as well, if applicable.

While CUPA represents the “on the ground” agency presiding over most business-related environmental health and safety matters, and in some jurisdictions a PA assists in limited, specific ways, we must not forget about the two salient and notoriously aggressive state pollution-control boards for air and water, which also have local representative agencies on the ground. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California State Water Resources Board play critical roles in regulating businesses and preventing harmful effects of industrial pollution, albeit their focus is limited solely to clean air and water. And there may be other smaller agencies with skin in the game as well, such as sewer authorities and building departments.

There can be some regulatory overlap here as far as a business is concerned. For example, an emergency back-up power generator’s emissions are regulated by the air-pollution agency, while its diesel fuel storage may fall under the purview of CUPA. The same goes with hazardous-waste drums stored outside—both CUPA and water-pollution board may have a vested interest in making sure the materials are managed in a way that keeps both people and the environment safe. A hazardous-waste treatment device, such as an acid-neutralization system, may fall under the jurisdiction of both CUPA for permitting and recordkeeping and the local sewer authority (Publicly Owned Treatment Works) for compliant discharges. So again, it is a matter of familiarization with your business’s operation, learning about pertinent regulations and acclimating yourself to the government’s regulatory infrastructure, one handshake at a time.

Once per year, California’s CUPA agencies, organized as CUPA Forum, come together to put on a week-long conference open to both regulatory agencies and businesses alike. The 2019 conference was located in Anaheim (February 25–28) and was largely viewed as a great success where individuals from both public and private sectors could meet, share and learn about a vast array of environmental topics. While details regarding the 2020 conference have yet to be made public, it can be assumed that the conference will be hosted in Northern California and take place in February or early March of 2020. Plan ahead! Attendance is highly recommended. 

Topics: Compliance, Regulations, California


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