What does a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment cover?

Written By: Doug Ruhlin | Sep 23, 2015

Time to Read 6 Minutes

Learn what Phase I Environmental Site Assessments cover, and what they don't.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about what a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment covers, and what it doesn't. Surprisingly, the scope of a Phase I ESA is pretty narrowly defined, and while it can include non-scope areas, most people only want a by the books Phase I from our experience. Regardless of your needs, it's critical for prospective users of this report to know what's covered in a Phase I, and what isn't, so that they can ensure that their needs and concerns are being met.

For example, I just wrapped up a fairly major job covering a few dozen Phase I's and a few environmental audits at a few light industrial operations spread across Georgia and Kentucky. Part of the wrap up was a conference call to a team of folks, including my client, investors, lawyers, and other professionals. I got right into it and started to discuss what RECs in a Phase I are and what protection a Phase I provides as it relates to what I found during the investigation. I got a couple of great questions back too. What's a Phase II ESA, and do we automatically need a Phase II? But the greatest one was a simple one that deserves a proper explanation: What does the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment actually cover?

I paused and realized in describing what a Phase I is, I never adequately described what it covers. So let's explore the question and learn what a Phase I normally entails.

What does a Phase I ESA Cover?

What does a Phase I ESA cover?

So when normally explaining what a Phase I ESA is, folks will often ask for additional non-scope items. Two common items that we get asked about, and which are not included in a Phase I, are wetland evaluations and environmental audits. While these, and other various topics may be vitally important to whoever is involved in the property transaction, they are not, by default, included in the report or investigation.

Now I keep mentioning "scope" items. Let's give you a super quick explanation.

A Phase I is an investigation of a property which must be conducted following ASTM standards which conform to the All Appropriate Inquiry standards, acceptable to the USEPA for provision of certain defenses against CERCLA liability. Got it?

What that basically says is that your Phase I Environmental Site Assessment should follow AAI standards, which have been written out by ASTM, and which have been approved by USEPA as being the benchmark for providing a certain level of liability protection in the event that the property you acquire later is found to be contaminated. A lot simpler, right?

Ok, so within those ASTM/AAI standards (known as ASTM 1527-13 at present, or "Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process), there is a scope of what a Phase I ESA is meant to address, which is namely evidence of present or past releases to the environment, to your property or adjacent areas (recognized environmental conditions) of petroleum products or hazardous substances.




Wow, that sounds pretty narrowly defined! Petroleum products or hazardous substances released to the environment.

Here are some examples of scope items and sample scenarios a Phase I would cover:

  • Releases of petroleum products - Things like past, present, and the potential for spills, direct visual evidence of leaky tanks, pipes, or equipment, fueling area observations, pumps, records of buried tanks, the condition of present tanks, etc. Normally we'll look at ground surfaces, paved surfaces, building interiors, secondary containment (or often the lack thereof), and more. The emphasis is to identify where petroleum has been, will be, and could end up on site.
  • Releases of hazardous substances - This is normally pretty similar to the releases of petroleum mentioned above, but we'll review additional aspects and areas of the site, such as drums, storage areas, equipment, chemical storage areas, holding ponds, waste collection areas, infiltration lagoons, etc.
  • Offsite / Historical / Unknown Releases - This normally is done through a record review stage, but we'll review the surrounding area, it's use, it's history, and other regulatory documents and information to gauge if your site could be contaminated based on others. Sometimes it's a previous tenant, sometimes it's a chemical plant down the road, or sometimes it's something as simple as illegal dumping.




So when conducting the on-site investigation, we normally look at as much of the property as possible, assuming we can safely access the area. In the office, we'll review historical documents such as aerial photographs, tax documents, deeds, business directories, governmental records, etc. Additionally, we'll interview anyone we can (done discretely if necessary) to garner information we couldn't find through other means. Really, we'll review anything and everything we can get our hands on to investigate a piece of property.

What does a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment cover?

What isn't covered in Phase I Environmental Site Assessments?

Note how I haven't discussed things like test pits, taking samples of soil, sampling groundwater, monitoring well installation, etc.? Things like that are either non-scope items, or something you'd get in a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment. I like to describe it like this. Phase I's are for visual inspections and document review while Phase II's are where you get your hands dirty.

There're plenty of other items which people tend to think are scope, but, in fact, are not. For instance, the following list of items are not included within a Phase I, and are even specifically listed as not being included in a Phase I, in the standards that DO list what is in a Phase I! They are:

  • The determination of the presence of any asbestos in buildings.
  • Any type of air, specifically Radon, testing.
  • Lead-based paint evaluations or lead in drinking water evaluation.
  • Any type of mold testing.
  • Like I mentioned above, environmental audits are not included.
  • Also, wetlands studies are not included.
  • Healthy and safety inspections.
  • Threatened or endangered species presence evaluations.
  • Cultural or historical resources and factors are not taken into consideration.
  • Ecological resources are not included.
  • And the list goes on…

Now that's not to say that any of these services can't be provided as a non-scope item at the same time a Phase I is being conducted. The way we work at RMA is any non-scope that a client wants is added on a piece-meal basis, and we charge per additional item and develop additional, specific reports. So a Phase I covers a fairly small, basic list of things. Want something extra? Ask. Confused? Ask. We've always found that the happiest customers are those that clearly understand what they're getting. Make sure you understand what you're getting, and what you're not.

It pays to know what a Phase I ESA covers well before you start the process, so you can plan accordingly. To learn more about the Phase I process, click here to contact us or call us at 609-693-8301 today.


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