Phase 1 ESA Checklist: Key Steps and Considerations

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • A Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) examines a property and its environmental conditions to guarantee its safety, compliance with regulations, and appropriate valuation.
  • Phase 1 ESAs usually follow an extensive checklist that includes the following steps: pre-assessment preparation, site inspection, interviews, documentation, data compilation, analysis, reporting, and offering recommendations.
  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) can hold property owners financially accountable for the release or threatened release of hazardous substances if the matter was not properly investigated before purchase.
  • Scheduling a Phase 1 ESA with a reliable environmental consulting and remediation company like Alpha Environmental can give you confidence that the property you are buying, selling, or transforming is safe and up to code.

What Is Checked During a Phase 1 ESA?

Conducting Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) before purchasing commercial properties is an excellent way to ensure safety, accurate pricing, and compliance with regulatory standards. A Phase 1 ESA can give you insight into whether the property’s soil is contaminated or if environmentally unfriendly operations like illegal dumping occurred there, protecting you from blame.

An environmental professional will work through several steps during this assessment, including executing visual inspections, reviewing property records, examining topographical maps, and conducting interviews.

Phase 1 ESAs can look slightly different for each property depending on age, record history, and geographic location. Still, there are several standard procedures that you can expect from most Phase 1 ESAs. Understanding the comprehensive checklist that environmental specialists will use during your assessment can help you prepare your expectations.

What Triggers a Phase 1 ESA?

Phase 1 ESAs can be prompted for various reasons, but they are usually performed before acquiring a new commercial property. Other rationale for requesting a Phase 1 ESA are:

  • Someone wants to sell their property
  • Someone wants to refinance their property
  • Someone is setting up a land lease
  • A public agency is planning a redevelopment effort

Sometimes, the financial institution serving as your lender will request an ESA—even if they do not, you should still take the initiative to guarantee your property is safe and up to code. When in doubt, consult a trustworthy environmental remediation company to determine if you need a Phase 1 ESA.

Why Should I Get a Phase 1 ESA Before Buying Property?

In 1980, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the release or threatened release of hazardous substances and seek reimbursement for cleanup expenses from potentially responsible parties.

If you buy a property without properly investigating its environmental standing and the EPA later finds it environmentally unfriendly, you may be liable for covering the cost of pollution cleanup and other remediation services.

To avoid unexpected charges, it is best to have a qualified team of environmental professionals perform a Phase 1 ESA before purchasing property so that you won’t be held liable for something you were unaware of. Thankfully, the cost of a Phase 1 ESA is usually significantly cheaper than the cleanup costs that EPA charges.

Phase 1 ESA Checklist Steps

Understanding the steps of Phase 1 ESA checklists can help you prepare relevant documents and get your property in order so the process is as smooth and accurate as possible. Although Phase 1 ESAs are adapted to meet each property’s needs, most of these assessments can be broken down into five steps.

1. Pre-Assessment Preparation

Gathering information about the property and its surrounding area is usually the first step of a Phase 1 ESA. This step encourages informed decision-making during property transactions or development plans.

Collecting Historical Information

Historical data from records and government databases can explain how other owners used the land and detail any alarming industrial activities. This data can help environmental professionals uncover lingering ecological concerns that originate from past land use, such as improper waste disposal practices.

Examples of common concerns found while surveying historical data are:

  • The existence of underground storage tanks
  • The former presence of a gas station
  • The former presence of an automotive repair facilities
  • The former presence of a dry cleaning company

Reviewing Regulations and Ordinances

After looking at historical documents, the environmental specialist may also review pertinent environmental regulations or zoning ordinances. This process guarantees that the property complies with current local, state, and federal laws. Plus, it can help you understand what types of actions are permissible, making it easy to stay compliant with regulations going forward.

Following pre-assessment preparation, the environmental specialist will have to visit the site in person to continue the Phase 1 ESA.

2. Site Reconnaissance

After reviewing historical data and relevant regulations, the next step of a Phase 1 ESA involves surveying the site in person and taking pictures from both aerial and first-person perspectives. This process can be separated into the following two phases.

Physical Inspection

This phase generally includes walking through the property and nearby areas, such as industrial facilities, waste disposal sites, and other neighboring constructs. During their exploration, the environmental specialist will visually inspect buildings and land characteristics for signs of potential contamination or risk factors. 

Some signs of environmental contamination are:

  • Iridescent sheens from oil or chemicals
  • Unusual odors
  • Soil discoloration
  • Sewage buildups

Although peculiarities like strange odors do not directly mean the property is polluted, it can warrant a deeper investigation to ensure the property’s safety.

Observation Documentation

The environmental professional will note and photograph any alarming discoveries during their surface-level physical inspection, recording things like broken chemical storage drums or dirt with unusual consistencies. These findings will be logged for future reference in case the assessment moves to a more thorough Phase 2 ESA.

Having accurate, up-to-date documentation about environmental concerns throughout your property can streamline the rest of the assessment and help environmental specialists pick back up where they left off if they return another day. It can also help the specialist hone interview questions as they enter the next phase of the Phase 1 ESA.

3. Interviews and Documentation

After physically inspecting the property and recording their findings, the environmental professionals will usually interview previous property owners and local officials, if necessary.

Property Owner Interviews

Past property owners and occupants will likely have invaluable knowledge that can better explain how the property was used. Considering not every detail may have been recorded in the historical documents they read, the environmental specialist will schedule interviews with people who actually interacted with the property. Some examples of interview questions include:

  • How long did you occupy the property?
  • What were the main operations that occurred on this site?
  • What activities were performed in [a specific part of the property]?
  • Are you aware of any spills or the use of hazardous materials that occurred in or around the property?

Sometimes, the interviewer will ask if the interviewee knows anyone else who can provide more insight into the property, such as workers or a local official.

Document Review

In addition to the historical and regulatory documents reviewed in step 1, the environmental professional may also examine permits, ecological reports, and topographical maps that provide more specific information to clear up any gray areas. They will often compare what they learned from their interviews with what is recorded in documents to promote accuracy.

4. Data Compilation and Analysis

With an assortment of information from interviews, documents, and visual inspections, the environmental specialist will likely take some time to compile their findings.

Data Collection and Organization

Reliable environmental remediation teams will be able to organize their findings and put them all in one place. For example, if interviews were conducted in person, notes from the discussion should be digitized, uploaded, and put in the same location as critical historical data and findings from the physical inspection.

Risk Assessment

After collecting and organizing data, environmental professionals should be able to review everything they have learned easily. By taking a comprehensive look at the property’s notes, a specialist can deduce if it is already contaminated or if there is a threatened release of hazardous substances. This risk assessment will give you an idea of whether you need further remediation services like waste removal or if the property is safe to use.

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5. Reporting and Recommendations

After combing through notes and assessing risk factors, the environmental remediation team will prepare a report and offer expert-level guidance to help mitigate environmental issues.

Report Preparation

All critical information from the Phase 1 ESA will be compiled into a report that is more digestible and easier to understand. Each report should be crafted in accordance with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards. Most ASTM-compliant reports will be broken up into the following components:

  • Executive summary – a synopsis of the entire assessment that briefly mentions marked concerns, risk levels, and next steps.
  • Findings – This section goes more in-depth about noteworthy findings, such as sewage buildups and discolored dirt.
  • Recommendations – This section provides suggestions on how to alleviate any discovered issues and get your property back to regulatory compliance.

Depending on the site and the level of risk, each report can vary in length and style.

Risk Mitigation Strategies

The person conducting your Phase 1 ESA will usually share helpful tips on addressing and mitigating the identified environmental risks. Some examples of potential next steps are:

  • Disposing of built-up waste
  • Excavating and removing contaminated soils
  • Treating contaminated soils or groundwater
  • Building barriers to prevent the spread of contamination
  • Routine soil and water sampling to monitor contamination

Each site will have a unique mitigation plan, so it is essential to consult with a trustworthy environmental remediation company to assess your property and build abatement strategies as necessary.

How Alpha Environmental Can Help 

To achieve accuracy, Phase 1 ESAs usually follow a standardized checklist. Pre-assessment preparation, site reconnaissance, interviews, documentation, data compilation, analysis, reporting, and providing recommendations are all crucial steps in a Phase 1 ESA. These steps will help you ensure a property is safe, accurately valued, and compliant with regulations.

If you are buying, selling, or transforming a property in Portland, Oregon or the surrounding area, schedule a consultation with Alpha Environmental, an environmental remediation company with over 21 years of experience. Our team of experts will follow ASTM standards to ensure your property is CERCLA-compliant and in the best shape possible.Call us at (503) 292-5346 or contact us online to learn more about what you can expect from a Phase 1 ESA of your property.

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