The Environmental Protection Agency regulates many industries, including construction. The EPA does publicize its rules and guidelines. Still, the onus is on companies to be aware of what EPA regulations they must follow on each job to avoid being ordered to comply or even sued.


How important are environmental regulations in construction? 

The EPA sets out requirements for construction companies designed to prevent or minimize damage to the environment and ecosystems surrounding construction sites. These requirements are law, and the EPA will issue notices to companies that violate them, and may order those businesses to comply or even sue.

Large construction companies may see settling with the EPA as a small nuisance that’s worth the risk of trying to play hopscotch over federal regulations. This much is clear, though: the EPA does investigate businesses, and once they are found in violation, they may be fined as much as $75,000 per day and also forced to comply, which eats up more time and profits.

The current administration has generally opted for reducing EPA regulations rather than strengthening them or creating new ones. An important point to keep in mind, though: Many states have their own environmental regulations as well, some of which are more stringent than the federal government’s.

Main areas of EPA regulation for construction

The areas of EPA regulation for construction include general, air, water, waste and lead. Major focal points in EPA’s oversight for the construction industry include stormwater runoff; wetland management; solid and hazardous wastes, such as lead; and air quality.

Below is a look at some rules and regulations surrounding construction pollution and debris that construction companies need to follow if they want to avoid facing fines.

Effluent or stormwater runoff guidelines

Originally instituted in 2009 and updated in 2015, the Effluent Guidelines of the Clean Water Act apply to construction companies who are using materials that might be harmful if they are carried along by rain into waterways or elsewhere. This is the definition of “effluent,” or stormwater runoff.

If your job site or construction activity disturbs one acre or more of land, you must apply for a permit and implement a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP). Among other actions, this plan must encompass:

  • putting in place sediment and erosion controls
  • provide buffers around surface waters
  • prohibit certain discharges such as motor fuel and concrete washouts

Wetland management regulations

Wetlands are important because of the ecosystems they support and the way they naturally filter water for our water bodies. If your project includes plans to discharge dredged material from a water body into other waters, or to utilize fill material to turn a wetland into a dry area, then you need a Section 404 Clean Water Act permit.

These permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, or for some waters, a state with a Section 404 permitting program, but they are granted or denied based on environmental criteria created by the EPA. The EPA may also prohibit or restrict the use of a site for dredged or fill material disposal.

Solid or hazardous wastes

All construction and demolition sites produce waste, also known as C&D debris. This can be anything from concrete to wood to asphalt to gypsum. According to the EPA, there are three types of C&D debris: the nonhazardous type, the type regulated by the EPA, and the type regulated by some states.

A 2018 report by Transparency Market Research projected that global construction debris—or waste that is abandoned and not properly disposed of post-project—would nearly double by 2025.

A full list of hazardous wastes has been mapped out in regulations stemming from the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), along with the requirements for managing, treating or disposing of this waste. A few examples of potentially hazardous items or substances are:

  • spent cleaners
  • paints and paint thinners
  • used oil
  • corrosive or flammable materials
  • toxic pollutants

Generators of hazardous waste are required to manage it based on their generator type: Large Quantity Generators (LQGs); Small Quantity Generators (SQGs); and Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generators (CESQGs), which only have a few rules to follow. Larger generators are subject to more regulatory requirements than smaller generators. Most construction companies are classifiable as CESQGs. However, you should check the Construction Industry Compliance Assistance (CICA) Center’s state resources to find out if your state recognizes this category.

Spill reporting requirements

Some construction site demolitions or excavations involve the use of chemicals or even oil. There are emergency reporting and planning requirements for hazardous chemicals and oil. Requirements depend on the type of chemical.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act establishes a “reportable quantity” for each chemical and requires you to report any spill or release beyond that quantity to a local authority. You’re also required to keep tabs on the materials on your site containing hazardous chemicals on a special sheet called a material safety data sheet (MSDS).

PCB wastes and asbestos

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are contained in some fluorescent lighting ballasts and old transformers. If your site generates this type of waste, you may need to follow certain federal requirements for disposal.

Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) have been used in construction since World War II. ACMs are most often found in insulation, resilient roof coverings, shingles, cement and asphalt roofing products.

Because inhaling asbestos particles can cause lung damage and cancer, the federal government regulates the disposal of certain types of asbestos products through both the EPA and OSHA.

Further resources

You can find more information on federal and state environmental guidelines for construction at the government-endorsed Construction Industry Compliance Assistance Center website. Using digital field notes and cost codes such as those offered in the ExakTime time clock app helps you know what activities are taking place on your construction sites and when, making it easier to stay compliant.