If you perform enough Phase I environmental site assessments, you will build a dossier of case studies, and time and chance may allow you to see how applicable your conclusions were. A scary proposition I might add. I am working on one of these right now. I assessed an industrial site in 2014 tapped for multi-family residential development. I found minimal obvious environmental conditions during my site visit, but a review of state files was rich with red flags. The original operator had a waste oil pit on the property that was dug out under the auspices of the state, but apparently not closed. A former fuel UST area had been closed, but groundwater contamination was still present when the facility went inactive in the state’s petroleum cleanup program. The county’s complaint and warning files were replete with entries. Some worrisome stuff. Previous operators were in the wastewater and septic tank business, capped off later by auto and transmission repair operations. Site activity dated by to the late 1950s. The previous Phase I environmental site assessment report provided was “clean.” Before releasing our report, with more research and interaction with the state, we were able to obtain confirmation that the used oil pit case had been closed. But still, this kind of activity, together with the county’s bulging complaint file, was cause for sleepless nights if our report did not reflect the elevated “business environmental risks” in acquiring the property.
In the end, since there were still four buildings on the abandoned property and much of the site was overgrown, I made a sweeping statement that the full story of the site would not be known until the buildings were removed and excavation was performed. Based on our assessment, the clients acquired the site. We were then engaged to perform follow-up groundwater testing in the former fuel UST area and did the work necessary for the state to close the UST facility with a “no further action” determination. But after that, we did nothing. We later learned that the site had been razed and a new potential buyer/developer was conducting due diligence. Its environmental assessor was charged with confirming our work by following the same tracks. Apparently, our assessment was confirmed and warnings heeded, and the prospective purchaser had a comprehensive ground penetrating radar (GPR) study conducted. That study revealed suspected buried metallic objects including possible vaults and tanks in at least 24 locations. Our client reengaged us to follow through on these findings with backhoe test pits.
To shorten this unfortunate saga, here’s what the Phase I environmental site assessment should have listed as “recognized environmental conditions” if we could have seen all that had transpired on the site over 60 years. A second waste oil pit; apparent systematic deposit of wastewater and other solid wastes on the property; buried debris including small tanks, truck tires, hoses, motorcycle, lawnmower, large concrete chunks, portable toilets, all over the site; a buried burn pit; a large septic tank and wastewater pipeline; and the list goes on. As a result, a permit had to be obtained from the county to remove the solid wastes, and site assessments in accordance with state rules had to be conducted on the waste oil and burn pits, an area where metals groundwater contamination was present, and where petroleum-contaminated water was discharged and accumulated over time. Ultimately 2,650 tons of contaminated soil and debris were removed from the site, and one can only imagine the corresponding costs.
Did our Phase I ESA conclusions hold up? The carefully crafted statement regarding the need for excavation after future site clearing apparently saved the day. We are still engaged by our client and there have been no sleepless nights. The moral of the story? Do the research. Be thorough. Recognize each site’s Achilles’ Heel. And go with your gut.