There’s an important task in the environment industry that consumes a significant amount of time and resources but is seldom discussed: report writing.
Environmental reports provide important data on specific subjects, such as planning and land use histories, contaminated land and flooding, or comprehensive packages of information for particular uses, such as property investment or risk assessment. The purpose of report writing is straightforward, but the process of producing these reports is not.
What are the pain points in report production? How can certain best practices evolve the process and provide greater efficiencies? There are proven strategies to reduce time and increase efficiencies. But there are also emerging issues to consider; as the environment industry evolves so does the content required with different due diligence obligations and reporting formats.
In our recent EnviroExchange discussion, our panel of industry experts examined the issues and had a dynamic discussion about lessons learned and proven strategies for optimal report production. Their comprehensive knowledge — and “secret sauce” recipes — should be considered in your efforts to evolve and enhance report writing capabilities, an essential skill in the growing green economy.
The panel included:
- Kevin Pendreigh has over 30 years of directly applicable environmental industry experience, including in both contracting and consulting roles. He manages the Land and Water team at SLR Consulting, which includes site assessment and remediation, hydrogeology/hydrology, and risk assessment and toxicology personnel in 18 offices across Canada. He is also active as an environmental auditor.
- Erika Ryter is a principal in the Environmental Services group at Stantec Consulting and has spent her career in the consulting industry focused on the identification, assessment, and remediation of contaminants in soil and groundwater. She has conducted and managed over 400 Phase I and II Environmental Site Assessment and remediation projects across Canada for commercial, industrial and insurance clients.
- Dana Wagneris a senior principal and director of Environmental Due Diligence Services at Terracon Consultants, Inc., one of the largest practices in North America. He also leads the Financial Legal and Investment sector of the National Accounts Program. He has 32 years of experience managing numerous single and portfolio projects across the United States, Europe, Canada, and Mexico.
- Freesia Waxman is a senior engineer with Grounded Engineering and has over 12 years of experience in environmental and hydrogeological engineering. In her current role, she provides project management, coordination, technical, and field experience in a variety of environmental services including Phase I and II environmental site assessments, risk assessments, excess soil, remediation programs, underground storage tank removals, baseline environmental studies, soil and fill management plans, hydrogeological investigations, and environmental compliance approvals process.
On the same page
When it comes to the biggest challenges in report writing, the panelists discussed similar concerns. There were reoccurring themes that crossed international borders and were also echoed by the opinions of the almost 700 webinar attendees.
According to the webinar poll, the greatest challenge in environmental report writing is the assembling of the data and the writing of the report (67 per cent), while the second biggest pain point is the peer review and editing process (24 per cent).
Moderator Corinne Lynds prompted the panelists to get specific about the particular challenges they’ve encountered over the years, as well as lessons learned.
Corinne Lynds, Content Director, Actual Media
According to Wagner, it’s important to encourage continuous improvement for the report production process, as well as for the training and mentoring that goes along with that. He emphasized the need to adapt to new technology that helps provide consistency, standardization, and efficiency to effectively deliver high quality reports.
Waxman concurred with Wagner regarding the challenges involved in getting junior staff up to speed. “It takes time and that’s where the importance of quality senior review always comes in and is invaluable. We need to make sure that you do a reality check sometimes and see if the conclusions that are being drawn in the report are actually make sense in the real world.”
For Pendreigh, a pain point for complex report production is getting third parties to stick to a schedule. “It’s very difficult to get everything to flow together and to check your facts against different sections, especially if it’s a multidisciplinary report.” He’s learned it’s critical to have one task master who will make sure the report gets prepared in time.
Ryter recommends having a discussion early on in the reporting process to get ahead of the many moving parts involved in the production process. “Communication is key at the onset to keep staff on task and provide a process to work through issues as they come up.”
Evolving the process
How are we doing things differently now that we were 10 years ago? Panelists referenced the intake of templates and technological tools that help streamline report production, which of course also leads to the online nature of reporting versus paper copies. And no one misses having to make time to search at the library or to get film developed.
Kevin Pendreigh, Managing Principal, Canadian Division, SLR Consulting
In recent years, “we’ve advanced by leaps and bounds, and we’re now working on reports simultaneously,” said Pendreigh. This has helped greatly with efficiency and time management, with consultants teaming up from various office locations. Particularly during the pandemic, it was convenient to have multiple team members coming together virtually from multiple home office locations.
Waxman also noted that in some of the larger companies, there’s a trend toward outsourcing report production. “There’s obviously pros and cons. The driving force is that it’s cheaper, generally speaking.” However, Waxman warns of the ESG (environmental, social and governance) aspects to consider with regard to supporting local economies and not exploiting workers from developing economies.
Wagner concurred on these points about the offshore preparation. “The one admonition is that it’s important to have somebody who understands local practices and customs, and more importantly, the regulations that apply so that you’re giving your best advice to the client. I can’t tell you how many times where that local knowledge has come into play in ascertaining if something is wheat or is it chaff.”
In terms of innovations, Ryter appreciates obtaining information, maps and images electronically. “Now we can overlay GIS maps and see everything and sort of switch seamlessly between them as opposed to taking the bits and pieces of the fire insurance plan and taping them all together in a big photocopy. This has made a big difference in helping synthesize critical data.”
Erika Ryter, Environmental Engineer, Principal and Practice Leader at Stantec Consulting
However, the panelists raised the idea that artificial intelligence has its limitations and that a human document control team is still the preferred method of report production for the sake of client relations and critical judgment.
Strategic advice and the “so what?” stamp
Each of the panelists brought a unique perspective to the table, as well as unique strategies and solutions. For Pendreigh, a senior reviewer and auditor, successful reports require writers who get buy-in from the clients, and carefully incorporate edits from senior reviewers.
“One of the most important things that people can really pay attention to is that report writing, unless you’re doing a one paragraph report, is a team sport,” he stated, explaining how team members are collaboratively supporting each other to result in the end goal.
Secondly, he encourages planning ahead as much as possible. For example, don’t waste your time, or your team’s time, developing a “15-page masterpiece” when you are responsible for a two-page summary. Ask all the right questions well in advance of the writing process about the report deliverables and format, including if and where are tables and images needed.
Finally, to satisfy regulators, reports are becoming more detailed and prescriptive. However, it’s important to summarize the key findings first in one sentence or two sentences before you add the rest of the detail, and to keep the intended audience in mind. Pendreigh recommends eliminating the non-relevant information and asking the question, “So what?” In fact, he has a stamp that has those exact words on it! He humorously remarked that this is the downside of electronic reports; he can’t use his stamp on them.
Dana Wagner, Senior Principal and Director, Environmental Due Diligence Services, Terracon Consultants, Inc.
Wagner had a unique perspective to offer given his international experience experience in transactional oriented environmental due diligence. He said that in the United States, due diligence is largely driven by regulation, such as Superfund regulation. But it’s also driven by commercial lending. He emphasized the importance of understanding regulations and potential liabilities relative to the particular property and environmental contamination and/or the prospect of it. However, Canada and Mexico have their own liability schemes and limitations therein, which are vastly different to Europe and Asia.
“The key takeaway for anybody who’s doing work internationally is it’s very important to have an astute understanding of the regulations and the practices in that area,” said Wagner, who shared that his firm partners with other providers when needed, to provide a necessary “state of play” knowledge that only local firms can provide.
Ryter, a licensed engineer and Qualified Person for ESAs (QP), agreed that it’s important to navigate the regulatory framework to effectively manage potential environmental liabilities.
For example, in Ontario, the Record of Site Conditions are an expectation of the ministry when it comes to Phase I and areas of concern. Often with the regulators, or if there’s a third-party peer review, maybe there’s some additional investigation that happens along the way.
“It’s important to carefully incorporate new data into these ever-growing tables and figures and data sets,” said Ryter, and answer the key questions: “How is this information going to be used? How do you see it playing out? How are you going to tell the story?”
Freesia Waxman, Senior Environmental Engineer, Grounded Engineering
Waxman, who provides peer review support, walked us through her process. “The peer review is an iterative process that requires a general once over of the report, addressing any “game stoppers” such as major technical flaws or areas that need clarification.
Other tips that the panelists shared: ask the client for examples of previous successful reports on similar subject matter or similar projects; when writing, embrace brevity and stay focused; have ongoing communication with the client and report writing team; avoid demotivating team members; address any disconnects between team members; edit to provide readability of the final report; and, don’t forget to help mentor and empower the junior team members.
What words should be avoided in report writing? All, always, and other absolute language. Or “ensure” which basically means you’re guaranteeing something; “estimate” is a much safer bet.
If there was a main takeaway from this webinar, it’s that consultants need not suffer report writing frustration any longer. There are strategic solutions and technological innovations ready to come to the rescue.
The webinar, which was sponsored by Environmental Risk Information Services (ERIS), can be viewed in its entirety here.
When it comes to improvements to the report production process, webinar attendees were interested in new technological efficiencies to improve productivity and accuracy (27 per cent), imbedded resources in report production software that is more intuitive (six per cent); better ways to collaborate and track process (five per cent), and most are wanting all of the above (63 per cent).
ERIS is helping to address these needs with the introduction of a new platform for technical and non-technical document creation called Scriva. For further information, click here.
For further information on upcoming EnviroExchanges, visit:
Featured image credit: Kraken Images/Unsplash