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Phase I Environmental Site Assessments

Any piece of real estate can be the subject of a Phase I - Environmental Site Assessment.  (ESA). Generally speaking, Phase I - ESAs are reports prepared for a real estate holding which identify potential liabilities associated with existing environmental contamination. ESAs typically address both the underlying land as well as physical improvements to the property.  Actual sampling of soil, air, groundwater and/or building materials is typically not conducted during a Phase I ESA. The Phase I ESA is generally considered the first step in the process of environmental due diligence. The examination of a site may include: definition of any chemical residues within structures; identification of possible asbestos containing building materials; inventory of hazardous substances stored or used on site; assessment of mold and mildew; and evaluation of other indoor air quality parameters.  The investigation also includes examination of potential soil contamination, groundwater quality, surface water quality and sometimes issues related to hazardous substance uptake by biota.

A variety of actions can cause a Phase I study to be performed for a commercial property, the most common being:

  • Purchase of real property by a person or entity not previously on title.

  • Contemplation by a new lender to provide a loan on the subject real estate.

  • Partnership buyout or principal redistribution of ownership.

  • Application to a public agency for change of use or other discretionary land use permit.

  • Existing property owner’s desire to understand toxic history of the property.

  • Compulsion by a regulatory agency who suspects toxic conditions on the site.

  • Divestiture of properties


Demand for ESA services increased dramatically in the 1980s following a trend in judicial decisions that held property owners liable to affect site cleanups.  This fact is directly related to multiple decisions by U.S. courts to hold a buyer, lessor, or lender responsible for remediation of hazardous substance residues, even if a prior owner caused the contamination.  These court decisions were based on the judicial interpretation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA).   In contrast, the performance of a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment, according to the courts’ reasoning, creates a safe harbor, known as the 'Innocent Landowner Defense' for such a new purchaser or his lenders.


PES staff has extensive experience in performance of real estate property transactions and environmental site assessments.  The standard utilized by PES staff performing a Phase I site assessment have been promulgated by the United States – Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and are based in part on ASTM in Standard E1527-05.


Limited Phase I ESA - Transaction Screen Environmental Site Assessments


Limited Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is a truncated Phase I ESA, normally omitting one or more work segments such as the site visit or certain of the file searches.  When the field visit component is deleted, the study is sometimes called a Transaction Screen (TS).

PES performs Transaction Screen Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs), in accordance with ASTM E 1528‐06, for property pre‐purchase, refinance, and insurance purposes.  The reduced effort of the TS – ESA is best applied as a preliminary screening tool for low risk and/or small capital expenditure properties.  Sites with clearly established past usage – clear of past or potential environmental liabilities are prime candidates for the simplified TA – ESA format.  PES staff can provide professional recommendations for which product best fits the need of our customers.


Aspects of the typical TS ESA include but are not limited to: travel to the subject site for an onsite evaluation, historical research utilizing existing data bases (e.g., Sanborn Maps, environmental/regulatory files of local, State and Government agencies), a questionnaire for the current owner/occupant and EP and a final report.  


Phase I Environmental Site Assessments

A multi-disciplinary approach is critical to the process of compiling with all the components of a Phase I study.   Skill sets required often include a working knowledge of chemistry, atmospheric physics, geology, microbiology and even botany.  PES maintains a staff of geologist, environmental scientist and engineers (Environmental Professionals) skilled and uniquely qualified in the performance of TS ESAs.   These Environmental Professionals are qualified under ASTM E 1527-05.


PES professional staff conducts Phase I ESAs in accordance with ASTM E 1527‐05.  Depending upon precise protocols utilized, there are a number of variations in the scope of a Phase I study.   PES is always cognitive of our client specific needs and commonly tailors our efforts to specific needs of our clients. 


For the sake of a general discussion - tasks common to almost all Phase I ESAs are as follows:

  • Performance of one or more on-site visits to document (visually and photographically) present conditions (chemical spill residue, die-back of vegetation, etc.); hazardous substances or petroleum products usage (presence of above ground or underground storage tanks, storage of acids, etc.); and evaluate any likely environmentally hazardous site history.

  • Review of Federal, State and Local data bases out to distances specified by the ASTM 1528 and AAI Standards (ranging from 1/8 to 1 mile depending on the database)

  • Interview of persons knowledgeable regarding the property history (past owners, present owner, key site manager, present tenants, neighbors).

  • Investigation of municipal or county planning files to check prior land usage and permits granted

  • Evaluation of risks of neighboring properties upon the subject property

  • Examine municipal or county planning files to check prior land usage and permits granted

  • Conduct file searches with public agencies (State water board, fire department, county health department, etc.) having oversight relative to water quality and soil contamination issues.

  • Examine historic aerial photography of the vicinity.

  • Examine current USGS maps to scrutinize drainage patterns and topography.

  • Examine chain-of-title for Environmental Liens and/or Activity and Land Use Limitations (AULs).


In most cases, the public file searches, historical research and chain-of-title examinations are outsourced to information services that specialize in such activities. Non-Scope Items in a Phase I Environmental Site Assessments can include visual inspections or records review searches for:

  • Asbestos Containing Building Materials (ACBM)

  • Lead-Based Paint

  • Lead in Drinking Water

  • Mold

  • Radon

  • Wetlands

  • Threatened and Endangered Species

  • Earthquake Hazard

  • Vapor Intrusion


These non-typical aspects can be added during the pre-planning process.  PES professional staff routinely provides guidance and recommendations with respect to the need for additional services to meet the goals of the client.

A few of the things our professionals are trained to look for during the site reconnaissance visit include: geologic/hydrogeologic conditions, sources of potable water, evidence of above and underground storage tanks (active or abandoned), containers used for storage/dispensing of petroleum or chemicals,  polychlorinated biphenyl‐containing (PCBs) materials, suspected asbestos containing materials, suspected lead based paint,  waste water discharge or improper disposal of construction/solid waste.   Our professionals complete these assessments expeditiously and strive to meet the common time sensitive time frames associated with such projects.

Limited Phase I ESA
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