When it comes to keeping building exteriors and outdoor structures clean, the recommendation often rests with the custodial professionals and/or building service contractors in charge. However, most cleaning professionals don’t know the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued strict laws on how exterior cleaning is carried out, and they can ring up a pretty hefty bill if the proper precautions are not taken.
Pressure washing remains one of the best ways for cleaning professionals to maintain building exteriors and other outdoor structures. It is useful for removing graffiti, cleaning up after construction projects, parking area cleaning, sidewalk salt removal, dumpster cleaning, and countless other projects. However, regardless of whether the cleaning professional has hired a professional power washing provider or has decided to power wash themselves, failure to abide by EPA regulations can turn routine exterior cleaning projects into a legal nightmare. As recent legal action suggests, the EPA is making it a priority to enforce the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Who Is Responsible?
It is up to the cleaning professional recommending exterior cleaning solutions to fully understand the steps they or a hired professional must take to avoid violating the Clean Water Act or they’ll put the building’s property owner at risk of serious fines. That’s right, contrary to popular belief, the responsibility of water reclamation when cleaning property exteriors is not in the hands of the cleaning professional or the pressure washing company … it rests with the property owner.
Property owners can face fines of up to US$50,000 a day if the water used in a pressure washing project contains dangerous chemicals or is allowed to contaminate the storm drain system. As suggested, the EPA is holding property owners accountable at an unprecedented rate. For example, in 2012, the EPA levied a record number $252 million in fines collected from civil and criminal penalties related to water contamination. That number far exceeds the $168 million collected in 2011.
Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court further empowered the EPA earlier this year by validating the EPA’s strict interpretation of the Clean Water Act. In the case of Decker vs. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Supreme Court voted 6 to 1 to uphold the EPA’s interpretation of its own regulations. So how can cleaning professionals steer clear of trouble and keep their property owner free from fines when completing exterior cleaning projects?
I recommend the following set of questions that facility managers must ask when tackling power washing projects on their own or with a power washing professional.
Q: Are any cleaning agents or products being used? If so, are they biodegradable or environmentally friendly?
A: Some projects don’t require cleaning agents to get the job done, but many do. It is important to know what agents are being used. Caustic chemicals and bleach are to be avoided. Look for companies that use chemicals that are citric based and therefore biodegradable and environment-friendly.
Q: Do we have the equipment necessary to collect and clean the runoff wastewater after the cleaning process? How are we making sure to prevent this wastewater from entering the environment?
A: A service provider with a water reclamation system that captures and re-uses wastewater will greatly minimize the risk of EPA violation or issues. If a power washing provider is being used for the project, ask how they handle water reclamation. If they don’t reuse it, make sure they are disposing of it in a way that is EPA compliant.* This water run-off issue is why some facilities rely on a power washing expert to complete power washing projects. While it is possible to complete do-it-yourself power washing projects, it is incredibly difficult to avoid violating the Clean Water Act’s runoff policy.
Q: Do you or the service provider have adequate insurance coverage, including pollution coverage or wastewater generation coverage?
Few cleaning professionals, and quite honestly, few power washing providers, possess adequate insurance coverage to avoid the risk of Clean Water Act fines. Many individuals and companies with the best intentions could still be susceptible to a mishap with wastewater reclamation. Cleaning professionals must make sure they or the company they hire has enough insurance coverage in case of a mishap.
Q: If you are using a power washing company, are the service provider’s employees contract labor or W2 with workers compensation coverage employees?
A: Pressure washing can be dangerous, and knowing whether or not the laborers working on the property are covered is important. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, there were an estimated 5,334 pressure washer-related injuries treated in hospital emergency departments in 2012. Don’t assume an injury can’t happen during the job.
Q: If you are using a power washing company, has the company or any of its customers ever been fined as a result of cleaning services?
A: It’s not enough just to ask for references; cleaning professionals need to discover whether or not the company or its clients have been a target of the EPA. Knowing a company’s history doesn’t ensure that something won’t go wrong on your job, but at least it gives cleaning professionals a good indication of the company’s EPA compliance. Once satisfied that the pressure washing company uses EPA compliant practices, be sure to have a system in place to verify that the approved equipment is being utilized whenever they are doing jobs. Ask to see the water reclamation hardware and ensure that it’s working properly. Ask a question if something doesn’t look right, and occasionally run spot checks when jobs are being performed to make sure the company has delivered on its promise to keep you out of trouble with the EPA.
*Section 301 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibits a point source discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States without an NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. Due to the fact that many pressure washer operators are mobile, it is not realistic to pre-determine discharge locations and obtains permits for each location. The most common method of compliance with the CWA is to prevent process wastewater discharges to waters of the United States. Examples of compliance without a discharge are vacuuming up the process wastewater or berming the process water and allowing it to evaporate. An additional method of compliance is to discharge the water to an NPDES permitted sanitary sewer system (the municipality may have additional pretreatment requirements before accepting your discharge).