When acquiring a site for development, a potentially costly risk is having to clean up hazardous waste and/or remediate environmental dangers within the site’s boundaries. That is why you must have a professional environmental services company perform an environmental site assessment (ESA) prior to acquiring the site in question to minimize your risk.

However, not all environmental assessment services firms are the same, and you should perform substantial due diligence on those you consider, as their site assessment findings could vary greatly in cost, time consumed, and quality. To determine the best fit for your organization, evaluate potential service providers around the following three criteria:

  1. Adherence to appropriate protocol and guidance
  2. Properly credentialed staff
  3. Advocacy position

The remainder of this post delves into these three criteria.

Adherence to Appropriate Protocol and Guidance

Fortunately, there already exist well-known standards for ESAs, which occur in two phases. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) established the standards to address the All Appropriate Inquiry (AAI) aspect of the Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) that dictates national policy, procedures, and guidance for cleaning sites and removing hazardos substances from them.

While specific protocols vary, depending upon site type, state, municipality and other factors, there exists a number of steps typically followed in a Phase I ESA. They include the following:

  • Physical, on-site visit to note current site conditions, such as chemical residue, vegetation die-back, existence of storage tanks for hazardous substances or petroleum products, and any other potentially hazardous site issues.
  • Evaluation of risks posed by neighboring properties
  • Review of federal, state, local, and tribal records
  • Interviews with anyone having knowledge of the site’s history
  • Examination of municipal or county planning files for prior land usage and permits
  • Searches of public agency databases (state water board, county health department, etc.) for past issues related to soil contamination or water quality
  • Viewing of historic aerial photos of the site and its vicinity as well as USGS maps that provide topographical and drainage patterns.
  • Examination of land use limitations and environmental liens

Beyond CERCLA requirements, you should also make sure your service provider is well-versed in the federal, state, and local regulations that exist outside CERCLA guidelines for site assessments.

Phase II environmental assessment activities will be dictated by the findings in your Phase I assessment. That is why the level of adherence to guidelines and protocols is vital when considering a service provider. Depending on Phase I findings, Phase II activities most often involve one or more of the following activities:

  • Sampling of surface soil and water
  • Boring of subsurface soil
  • Groundwater monitoring well installation
  • Drum sampling (as well as sampling of dry wells, floor drains, and catch basins)
  • PCB sampling
  • Geophysical testing for buried drums or tanks
  • Underground storage tank testing

Properly Credentialed Staff

Given the complexity and varied nature of items to be tested in any potential development site, it stands to reason that qualified service firms take a multi-disciplinary approach to their ESAs. That is why they should have, on staff, professionals with skills in chemistry, geology, environmental science, and engineering. Additionally, high-quality firms will have Environmental Professionals with degrees in technical environmental disciplines leading the report preparation efforts in Phase I.

ASTM established qualification parameters to perform Phase I ESAs within ASTM E 1527-13, which defines an Environmental Professional this way:

  1. A current Professional Engineer’s or Professional Geologist’s license or registration from a state or U.S. territory with 3 years’ equivalent full-time experience;
  2. Have a Baccalaureate or higher degree from an accredited institution of higher education in a discipline of engineering or science and 5 years’ equivalent full-time experience; or
  3. Have the equivalent of 10 years’ full-time experience.

To help narrow down your initial search, many states have professional registries which you can leverage to screen for viable service providers.

Advocacy Position

Across all industries there are those consulting firms that focus on customer success and those that focus on maximizing consulting fees. Unfortunately, given the special technical knowledge required for ESAs, the environmental consulting industry is a prime candidate for performing unneeded tests and services within Phase I and Phase II of ESAs. Thus, you must make sure you are hiring a consultant that specializes in advocating for clients rather than maximizing billings.

To find a consultant advocate, perform your due diligence with an eye toward trustworthiness, logical task flow, and willingness to establish solid cost estimates. To achieve this, obtain at least three estimates of work to be performed and evaluate if the consultant is telling you what you want to hear, versus prescribing realistic approaches to likely problems. Have the consultant provide a step-by-step procedure he/she will follow based upon what they would analyze and why. This will shed light on the logical flow of items to be performed.

Regarding costs, evaluate for the consultant’s sensitivity to your profit and loss accountability. Not only do you need solid cost estimates for the overall project, but also activity-specific cost breakdowns. If the consultant is unwilling to take these steps, then he/she is not on your side. Recognizing that the unforeseen can arise when inspecting a site, ask the consultant for a contingency plan in the event of major adverse findings.

Finally, check references thoroughly and complaints with the Better Business Bureau. Moreover, go beyond the references supplied by the vendor and find, through town records, sites where the consultants have worked and approach the owners of those sites to discuss their level of satisfaction with the consulting firm.

Given the potential negative business impact of an inadequate ESA, be certain you allow time to properly evaluate your ESA consulting partner.

Contact us if we can be of assistance.