How to read a Phase I

A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is a technical document that many people find hard to read, even the people who paid for it. These reports don’t have to be overwhelming. Here’s a breakdown on how to get the most out of them.

The typical report contains about 20 to 30 pages of information, followed by supporting documentation in appendices. It’s not unusual for these reports to be hundreds of pages long, and not all the information is useful. Remember that these reports must follow both EPA regulations and ASTM standards. Also, the rules are the same, regardless of whether you’re looking at a small undeveloped lot or a large industrial facility.

Start by digging in at the Executive Summary. This will give you the most basic information that you need to know about the property. Was it ever used as a gas station? Was there ever a dry cleaners next door? This section is found near the front of the report and will give you most important information about your site.

Look for a discussion of recognized environmental conditions. Also called REC’s, these described threats to human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals. They’ll spell out concerns identified when looking at the detailed history of the property. Maybe one of the previous owners of the property was an oil company. Maybe a suspicious area was found on an old aerial photograph. If they find REC’s then more investigation may be needed.

From this point try looking at the specific areas of the report where problems were identified. There will always be sections for Underground Storage Tanks and waste disposal methods. You may be referred to the appendices where all the important backup documentation is kept.

Check out the photographs. These will give you a good idea of what is going on at the property and what was going on in the past. If an old rusty drum was found there should be a picture of it here. If an area of the building looks like a gas station you should be able to see it here.

Be sure to check out the aerial photographs. This is my favorite part of the report where you can see how the site and surrounding area changed and developed over time. It may not always be necessary to review these, but it is always interesting to look at.

Lastly, the report should include a recommendation, even if the recommendation is that no additional work is needed. If something doesn’t make sense get your environmental professional on the phone and have them explain it. If you think something doesn’t add up, you can always have someone else review it. For as little as $250 per report you can find someone to double check the results. It never hurts, after all, to get a second opinion.