Data Center solutions have never been more critical to business success than they are today. As companies focus on optimizing productivity through development and implementation of new applications and technology, even minor interruptions in the operational uptime of their data systems can be catastrophic to the bottom line.

A recent report by the Uptime Institute notes that one-third of all reported system outages cost over $250,000 per incident, and several cost the impacted company over $1MM. With downtime adversely affecting business operations so significantly, it’s no surprise that businesses seeking data center solutions overwhelmingly select top performers. For a Tier IV data center trying to meet an industry standard of 99.995% uptime, that means that only 26 minutes and 17 seconds of annual downtime defines you as substandard. Whether it’s an environmental regulatory violation or a hazardous chemical release, ignoring or delaying environmental compliance only increases the likelihood of an unplanned outage.

Antea Group has helped data centers maintain EHS regulatory compliance for decades, providing support with hazardous materials storage (backup generators, water treatment), characterization of waste (universal, e-waste, and even hazardous waste), SPCC reporting, air permitting, spill response, and EPCRA reporting. Because compliance criteria changes depending on location, Antea Group maintains a database documenting all state/provincial, and local requirements.

Before we get into our "top 5" list, download a copy of our data center environmental checklist to follow along and assist with the identification of common environmental regulatory compliance requirements. Note that the checklist focuses on US regulations, but it is equally important to understand state and local regulations if operating in the US, and country-specific regulations if operating internationally.

Download Data Center Environmental Checklist:

Top 5 Environmental Findings from Data Center Audits

We have consolidated and analyzed the information obtained from decades of audits and assessments of operational data centers. Through that analysis, we have identified the top 5 most common environmental findings. We have also included examples of international regulations to demonstrate the complexities of EHS compliance in data centers. 

1. Missing or Deficient Air Permits:

Backup generators, which can be powered by diesel or natural gas, create emissions during periods of testing and when backup power draws are required to continue operation. These emissions typically include diesel exhaust and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Depending on total annual operational hours for generators at a facility, it may trigger the need for a state or local permit. Emissions sources should be catalogued, emissions need to be calculated, and the totals should be evaluated against applicable regulatory limits. Audit results commonly note the lack of an inventory of emissions sources and annual emissions evaluations which prevents a facility from evaluating emissions totals against applicable permit standards. In many cases, those emissions calculations would have revealed that universal permits (ex. Permit by Rule) or facility-specific permits were required.

International Regulation Example:

In India, generators must have a valid certificate of Type Approval and Conformity of Production that specifies that the generator complies with particulates, NOx, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon emission limits listed in Series 95 in Schedule I of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. This finding occurs when the documentation is not turned over between the construction contractor to the operations/launch team of the company.

Common issues that need to be tested, documented, and demonstrated for compliance are ambient noise regulations or community noise requirements. For example, in Egypt, a data center can’t exceed the maximum permissible limits listed for each urban area (Table 3 of Annex VII to Decree No. 338 of 1995 Implementing Law No. 4 of 1994 on Protection of the Environment) when operating or using equipment in residential, commercial, and industrial areas. A test of what the sound would be when the generators are running as backup power should be completed to demonstrate compliance even during emergency situations.

2. Missing or Deficient Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plan (SPCC Plan):

Diesel-containing backup generators are typically constructed with belly tanks. If the total aggregate capacity of a facility’s diesel storage exceeds 1,320-gallons, federal SPCC regulations apply and a facility-specific SPCC Plan is required. If the total aboveground diesel storage capacity exceeds 10,000-gallons, the Plan will need to be certified by a licensed Professional Engineer. These plans mandate specific fuel transfer and secondary containment processes, periodic inspections and recordkeeping, spill prevention training, formal reviews every five years, etc. Common findings included the lack of an SPCC plan, old or inaccurate plans, and the lack of required inspections and recordkeeping. Diesel storage in underground storage tanks (USTs), while less common, triggers additional (more robust) state and/or local-specific compliance requirements; SPCC is triggered when there is an aggregate underground storage capacity greater than 42,000-gallons.

International Regulation Example:

While SPCC is mainly focused on the United States, there are requirements that exist in other countries. For example:

  • In the UK, various regulations and acts cover discharges of hazardous substances to the ground, groundwater, surface water drains, rivers, etc., and sewer discharges that go to public water treatment plants. Although the regulations have different names, they follow the same pattern of intervention for spills. Petroleum, as with other harmful substances, are prohibited from discharge without consent or license but would still be prohibited in the case of petroleum. Spill prevention plans should be in place, as per most licenses and permits, which will explain the spill requirements for the premises. Containment and treatment/clean-up should be the highest priority.
  • In China, petroleum is considered a hazardous chemical, so a petroleum spill is considered a hazardous chemical accident. Therefore, the spill response should comply with national regulations of hazardous chemical management. According to the Art.71 of Regulations on the Safety Management of Hazardous Chemicals, when any hazardous chemical accident occurs, the person in charge of the unit shall immediately organize rescue in accordance with their emergency plan and report to the local Work Safety Bureau, Ecology and Environmental Bureau, Public Security Bureau, and Health Commission Bureau.
  • Egypt has an established National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) which details roles, responsibilities, and preparedness requirements as associated with an oil spill incident related to a generator fuel spill. The plan also details the Tier level of the incident. Tier levels are defined based on response requirements.
    • Tier I incident is where the polluter is capable of responding to the incident with their own capability and resources.
    • Tier II would require mobilization of resources from additional stakeholders (e.g. local spill response providers).
    • Tier III would require the mobilization of national and international resources. It is also noted as over 1,000 tonnes in the NOSCP. An OILPOL form is used for the immediate reporting of an incident to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA). For Tier II and Tier III incidents, a phone notification must be made to the crises and environmental disasters unit in the EEAA. 

3. Failure or Inaccurate EPCRA Reporting:

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) is a federal regulation which requires emergency planning, emergency notification, and hazardous substance inventory reporting at the facility level. This law is intended to help prevent catastrophic incidents by requiring emergency planning, reporting of hazardous substance storage to first responders, and notification of spills or releases to the environment.

While one does not typically associate data centers with hazardous substances, Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) systems contain lead-acid batteries, generators operate on large quantities of diesel, and water treatment systems can contain ammonia, chlorine, or acids. A lack of annual Tier II reporting under Section 311 of EPCRA is a common audit finding, and even when reporting is being performed annually, it is common to find that hazardous substance volume has been inaccurately calculated.

International Regulation Example:

Similarly in Singapore, Hazardous Substances License and Permit holders must keep records of stock movements of the hazardous substances in accordance with the formats specified by government regulators.

4. Waste Management Deficiencies (universal waste, e-waste, or hazardous waste):

Facilities generating and storing hazardous waste onsite are required to ensure that it is handled,  stored, and subsequently shipped in accordance with applicable state and local guidelines. Federal and state registrations are typically required. Generator status (based on annual waste storage volume) must be determined to understand engineering requirements for waste storage areas, reporting and recordkeeping requirements, training, and needs surrounding release prevention planning. Add in the complexities of waste characterization, accumulation deadlines, annual waste summary development and submittals, and disposal options, and this area of environmental compliance can be as confusing as it is maddening.

It is common to see missing registrations, a lack of or improper annual waste reporting, incorrect generator status, missing or poor waste segregation and characterization practices, a misunderstanding of how to manage universal waste and e-waste, poorly maintained or insufficient waste storage areas, improper labeling, and waste remaining at a facility beyond the allowable accumulation timeframe.

International Regulation Example:

In Europe, the waste classification is based on the European List of Waste (Commission Decision 2000/532/EC) modified by Decision 2014/955/UE and Annex III of the Directive 2008/98/EC. Waste types are classified as hazardous or non-hazardous in accordance with Waste and Contaminated Soil Law 22/2011 as incorporated into local regulations. Each country still has its own set of requirements which can be where data centers miss compliance elements. For example, there are reporting requirements in Spain regionally. This Spanish requirement requires facilities by March 31st to provide a hazardous and nonhazardous waste production level report for the previous year. The report is submitted electronically using the waste online system developed in each region and contains hazardous and nonhazardous waste production levels, the destination where each waste stream has been sent, details of any temporary storage at intermediate facilities, and relevant incidents that may have occurred in the preceding year.

5. Chemical Management Compliance:

As previously noted, data centers contain high volumes of lead-acid batteries and diesel. It is common to also find coolants, water treatment chemicals, and other small-quantity process chemicals such as cleaners, solvents, acids, fuels, and paints. With storage of these hazardous chemicals comes requirements for registrations, permitting, inventory, Global Harmonization Standard (GHS) management, Safety Data Sheet (SDS) management, pollution prevention, spill reporting, and storage area design. The most common audit findings include improper chemical storage and labeling, missing or inadequate chemical inventories, and poor SDS management practices. These issues are observed with chemicals stored inside a facility as well as the diesel generators outside the facility.

International Regulation Example:

During GHS implementation and/or transition to a new version of GHS, these findings increase. The language on labels and the SDS content provided by suppliers must meet the local requirements. In January 2021, Australia began a two-year transition to GHS Rev.7. It can be a difficult place to audit as manufacturers and importers may use different versions to prepare classifications, labels, and SDS for hazardous chemicals. By January 2023, only GHS Rev.7 may be used in Australia and that will reduce the confusion of assessing compliance. 

Head spinning yet? We understand all these environmental compliance findings can be confusing. Whether you are seeking local, state, federal, or international EHS compliance for your data center, Antea Group consultants can help. For more information on how Antea Group can assist your data center in ensuring regulatory compliance and reporting, contact us or visit our data center support page.

Data Center Support

Want more news and insights like this?

Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, The New Leaf. Our goal is to keep you updated, educated, and even a bit entertained as it relates to all things EHS and sustainability.

Get e-Newsletter