How to Perform an Environmental Audit

Reader Contribution by James White
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Concerns about the environment, energy efficiency and conservation stretch across the globe. The options available for research, analysis, safety and protection practically boggle the mind. The environmental discipline encompasses many natural sciences such as air, soil, water, wildlife, plants, historic or archaeological impacts, agriculture and more.

And when someone says “environmental audit,” you may easily picture everything from a Googled checklist to a team of archaeologists digging in the backyard on a multi-agency investigation.

So how does an average homeowner or small-business owner wade through all the information to find what they need? It helps to narrow the focus or break a multi-faceted audit into parts organized by science type.

Why Do You Need an Environmental Audit?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers guidelines for conducting an audit and says the first step is to determine why it’s needed. The two most common reasons are for compliance or some level of environmental management.

The person requesting the audit usually defines its purpose and scope, and then chooses whether to hire a consultant or do it themselves. Few audits are the same, but most follow general steps and protocol:

• Determine an objective
• Define the scope
• Gather data
• Monitor subject
• Report results
• Implement action

States, counties, cities, land trusts, wildlife associations, farm bureaus and natural-resource organizations offer different kinds of information that may be relevant to your objective and scope.

The data-gathering part of an audit often requires special equipment, creating a need for everything from radiation-detection kits and submersible cameras to devices that measure dangerous gasses and volatile-organic compounds (VOCs). For professional and do-it-yourself environmental auditors, look for testing and safety equipment, such as water-quality meters, to use on site.

If you’re a land developer seeking investment property, you most likely need an environmental assessment to ensure that a potential site doesn’t have characteristics that might impede progress. You don’t want contaminated soil, a building with asbestos or lead, dangerous floodplains, protected species, or an unknown historical or archaeological feature. The audit can be used for compliance — you can consider hiring a professional scientist, if not a team of them, to perform it.

If you own a home by the river, you might want to know why you saw dead fish in the nearby creek last summer and if there is any threat to area groundwater. You’ll find plenty of free information on your own, but a consultant will save you time. Consultancy options range from companies that charge thousands of dollars to conduct audits regularly to qualified individuals who review basic information and report verbally.

Follow a Logical Flow

Using the dead fish example, you might start an audit by checking with a reliable source to see what kills fish, such as a list at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dead fish can result from:

• Erosion
• Dirt deposit
• Excess nitrate and phosphorous
• Dissolved oxygen
• Water temperature
• Decaying materials

The next step is to make calls to the local river-protection association, water-management organization department and land trust downriver. Ask to see water-quality test results if they’re not accessible online and scan the local drinking water quality reports for any red flags. Research what exists upriver to see if any industrial or agricultural operations could be affecting water quality, knowingly or unknowingly.

The next typical audit steps involve:

Objective – determine why the fish died
– consider the small stretch of creek
Data – gather from multiple sources
Monitor – test water and watch fish
Report – make notes about what you learn
Action – clean debris periodically

You may learn that there are no major issues but find that low oxygen can kill fish during summer months. Warm water holds less oxygen than cool water, and it also encourages algae blooms and other plants that hog oxygen at night.

If the data reveals how built-up debris causes poor circulation and the accumulation of toxins, clear away the branches and leaves to free the creek’s flow, boost the water’s oxygen level and prevent more fish deaths.

Share Your Information

What you learn during any kind of environmental audit produces information that is helpful to others. Tell your neighbors how the local river association offers incentives for green infrastructure like rain barrels, green roofs, shade trees, porous pavement, and rooftop-runoff catchers.  

Ask if anyone wants to organize a volunteer-cleanup day and pass along the EPA’s list of ways to preserve healthy waters:

• Adopt a watershed
• Clear debris after a storm
• Join a stewardship program
• Stop or prevent pollutants
• Use water efficiently
• Bring back the water fountain

Large or small, collaboratively or independently, an environmental audit presents a challenging but fulfilling puzzle to solve. Audit results provide a valuable benchmark and lead to necessary corrections, enhanced protection and deeper education.

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