What does it mean if you’ve done a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and it’s found a problem?
First of all, that’s kind of good news. It means the Phase I has done its job. If you’re purchasing the property then you’ve learned about the problem before you end up owning it. If it’s a property you already own, then you’ve learned about the problem before selling it to someone else and catching them by surprise. Letting all the parties know about any issues will help keep things above board and help to prevent conflict and reduce overall liability.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the common issues identified by Phase I Environmental Site Assessments.
1. Gas stations – Gas stations have been around for over a century. Fun fact, the first gas station was built in 1905 in St. Louis. As I was growing up you’d hear advice between grown-ups:
“Don’t get your gas over there. They’ve got water in their tanks.”
This isn’t something you hear about anymore due to rules for Underground Storage Tanks from the EPA. But, back in the day, water getting into tanks also meant that fuel was getting out. This allowed the chemicals found in gasoline, diesel, and other fuel types to get into the ground and into nearby aquifers. These days gas stations are not the problems they once were, but many older stations still have the potential for chemicals to affect human health and the environment.
2. Dry cleaners – Dating back to the 1820s, the first patents were filed to clean fabrics with chemicals. Common cleaning solutions included gasoline, benzene, turpentine, and kerosene. While these chemicals protected clothes from water damage, an obvious problem is that the chemicals used were highly flammable. Seeking alternatives, the use of “Stoddard solvent” became popular in the early 20 th century, followed by chlorinated solvents. The use of tetrachloroethylene (PCE) became the chemical of choice, its use peaking in the 1980s. Many dry cleaning facilities were associated with the release of these chemicals to the natural environment. Unlike gasoline, these chlorinated solvents are denser that water, sinking into aquifers and reaching places that may be hard to clean up.
3. Industry – Industrial properties are commonly associated with a variety of uses and chemicals that can affect human health and the environment. Such facilities have to be examined on a case by case basis for historical issues. Modern facilities are typically well regulated by state agencies to prevent or reduce the impact from new chemical releases.
4. Other environmental concerns exist out there, and may be associated with railroad lines or spurs, equipment containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), landfills, and many more issues.
Once identified, it’s likely that the property will move into the collection of samples for chemical analysis. Common methods include sampling the soil, groundwater and/or air within the subsurface of the property. Samples will be submitted to an environmental laboratory for the analysis of the chemicals that are suspected to be present. A lot will depend on where your site is located, as the Phase II Environmental Site Assessment will vary by State. The environmental agencies of each state are all organized and regulated differently. Your Environmental Professional should be able to help guide you through the process.