What is the Purpose of the Records Review?
The objective of the Records Review portion of the Phase I assessment, is to ' . . . obtain and review records that will help identify recognized environmental conditions in connection with the property,' according to ASTM E 1527.
What Records are typically reviewed?
Availability of information varies from source to source, including governmental jurisdictions. The assessor is not obligated to identify, obtain, or review every possible record that might exist with respect to a property. Instead, ASTM identifies record information that may be reviewed from standard sources, and the assessor is required to review only record information that is reasonably ascertainable from those standard sources. Record information that is reasonably ascertainable means (1) information that is publicly available, (2) information that is obtainable from its source within reasonable time and cost restraints, and (3) information that is practically reviewable.
A review of records from a number of sources are conducted to help gain a better understanding of facility layout, construction, site features, and operations, and the potential for these onsite operations to affect soil, groundwater, or public health at the subject property, or other nearby properties. Sources that may be used in achieving this goal include the following:
- Client/Site Contact Furnished Information
- Environmental Database Report
- Departments of Health/Environment
- Fire Department
- City and County Planning Departments
- Building Departments
- Local and Regional Pollution Control Agency (Regional Water Quality Program)
- Electric and Natural Gas Utility Company
This record review is not to be confused with a review of records to establish the historical use of the property. In some instances, historical use information may be obtained from these same sources.
The records review portion of the Phase I assessment pertains primarily to the subject property, and the assessor is not required to assess adjacent or nearby properties, according to ASTM E 1527. However, if during the review of records pertaining to the subject property information is identified relating to adjacent or nearby properties which would result in a recognized environmental condition or potential environmental concern at the subject property, then the assessor should include this information in the report.
How does the Assessor obtain Records and other Information?
Access to information will vary. It is becoming increasingly common for local, state, and federal contacts to require a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information regarding an individual property. Under the Freedom of Information Act, government contacts, have the right to (1) charge individuals to review a file, (2) withhold the entire file but provide only specific information requested, and (3) require an extended period of time to provide the requested information.
Information that is obtainable within reasonable time and cost constraints means information available within 20 calendar days of a written, telephone, or in person request at no more than a nominal cost intended to cover the source’s cost of retrieving and duplicating the information according to ASTM E 1527. Information that can only be reviewed by a visit to the source is reasonably ascertainable if the visit is permitted by the source within 20 days of request.
Most local, state, and federal contacts will provide the requested information within 20 days of the request, so it is uncommon for a source of information to be identified as not being reasonably ascertainable because of time constraints.
Building and Fire Departments often require the formal submittal of a FOIA request and charge for records. A typical charge associated with a FOIA request ranges from $1 to $50. This cost will vary depending on whether copies of the information requested would be provided, or if it is just made available for the assessors’ review. Some local, state, and federal contacts may choose to charge what is considered excessive fees for FOIA request (e.g., $100 or more). When this occurs, the information requested may in some cases be considered practically reviewable (i.e., is obtainable within reasonable time and cost). For example, when the cost of the records is relatively high in relation to the total cost of the Phase I assessment, this may be viewed as not practically reviewable.
The value of the information based on the type of property assessed should also be considered when evaluating if a source is practically reviewable or not. For example, if the subject property is vacant or recently developed and the potential presence of USTs can be verified through another source (e.g., building department, site interviews), then a review of fire department records may not be necessary. If the subject property has been developed for some time and, based on the current or historical use of the property, could have used USTs, then a review of the fire department records may be warranted.
Smaller townships or villages may not have individual municipal offices (e.g., building, assessing, planning), but may maintain a single file for a particular property. Also, it is not uncommon for townships and villages to maintain sporadic business hours requiring careful scheduling.
It is important to note that much of the information from the record sources may be verified through interviews with the site contact or other sources. If a discrepancy is identified between the record review and the onsite interview, then the information should be confirmed to resolve the discrepancy if possible.
When should the Records Review be done?
There are differing opinions regarding the preferred sequence of the record review and site visits. ASTM E 1527 does not favor one sequence over the other. An argument can be made that the record review portion of the Phase I assessment serves to verify information previously secured at the time of the site visit. Conversely, by conducting the record review prior to the site visit, the assessor is more familiar with the property and can better address potential onsite concerns. On occasion, the assessor will discover during the site visit and interview that the subject property currently or formerly included an adjacent property, or was formerly identified at a different address. When this occurs, then a record review for this additional address should be conducted following the site visit.
There may not be a universal correct order regarding these activities, as the availability of information varies from project to project. What is most important is that a thorough records review be conducted, and that the information obtained during the record review be evaluated along with observations made and information obtained during the site visit (i.e., cross checking).
What Information is available from each of the Sources?
A request should be made of the client or site contact regarding general information about the subject property prior to conducting the walkthrough of the subject property. It is often efficient to send a written request a few days prior to the site visit. Information requested may include:
- Property and building sizes, acreage
- Site layout plan
- Construction dates
- Description of any additions or renovations, including square footages and construction dates
- Brief description of current onsite operation
- Current ownership name, past ownership
- Current occupant(s) name
- Length of time since initial ownership/occupancy
- List of previous owners and/or occupants (if known)
- Any proposed operational changes or building modifications or additions
- Any current or former below-grade structures onsite (e.g., USTs, hydraulic lifts, pits, trenches, sumps, reservoirs, floor drains), as well as any UST registrations
- Any current or former ASTs, as well as any AST registrations
- List of utility providers (i.e., electric, natural gas, water, sewer [sanitary/storm])
- List of any hazardous materials used or stored onsite, with estimated quantities
- List of any hazardous waste generated onsite, with estimated quantities, and disposal method and contractor
- Hazardous waste generator notices
- Any previous environmental site assessment or audit reports prepared for the subject property
- Any environmental permits (e.g., air, solid waste disposal permits, hazardous waste disposal permits, wastewater permits, NPDES permits)
- Material safety data sheets (optional)
- Community right-to-know plan
- Safety plans; preparedness and prevention plans; spill prevention, countermeasure, and control plans; etc.
- Reports regarding hydrogeologic conditions on the property or surrounding area
- Notices or other correspondence from any governmental agency relating to past or current violations or environmental laws with respect to the subject property or relating to environmental liens.
By collecting this information prior to the site visit, the assessor will be familiar with the site and can be better prepared to address concerns that may arise during the site visit. During the site visit, additional questions can be asked to help the assessor fully evaluate the potential for a recognized environmental conditions or environmental concerns at the subject property.
If provided with previous environmental reports, the assessor should evaluate the report carefully to determine its validity, taking into consideration factors such as: (1) the age of the report, (2) the scope of work, (3) the limitations and exceptions of the previous assessment, and (4) recommendations made previously. ASTM E 1527 allows the assessor to rely on previous environmental reports to provide some information regarding the subject property, such as historical use, utility providers, legal description, and asbestos sampling. The use of the property since the issuance of the previous report must be documented during the new assessment.
Environmental Database Searches
ASTM E 1527 provides detailed guidelines on environmental database searches, including the respective search distances to be researched. The environmental database report should be ordered and reviewed prior to the site visit. The assessor is then better equipped to evaluate potential recognized environmental conditions or concerns onsite associated with issues noted in the database report. During the site visit, the assessor should confirm that the location of the subject property is correctly plotted. The assessor should note any discrepancies and request the environmental database provider to make any necessary corrections to the database report.
When reviewing the findings of the environmental database report, and evaluating the potential for listed sites to pose an environmental concern to the subject property, some of the factors that may be considered include:
- the database(s) in which the identified site has been listed, and if the identified site has experienced a known or suspected release
- the source of the release
- the resources effected (i.e., soil, water, air)
- the depth to and direction of groundwater flow in the area
- the current status of the release (e.g., active investigation, active remediation, remediation complete)
- the distance between the identified site and the subject property
- the soil type(s) in the area
- the potential use of groundwater (for potable or other purposes) in the area
- the potential presence of surface and subsurface features between the identified site and subject property which could either (1) serve as a migratory pathway for groundwater, or (2) serve as a groundwater barrier between the subject property and the identified site
- any known investigative or remedial actives conducted at or in the vicinity of the subject property that would detect or address contaminants migrating toward to the subject property from the identified site
Once the pertinent factors have been evaluated, the assessor should determine if the site could have the potential to pose a direct environmental concern to the subject property. If the assessor determines that a known or suspected site may affect the subject property, either further review (e.g., a regulatory agency file review) or a subsurface investigation may be recommended. This determination is often not black and white and requires the assessor to make a judgement call. Typically, 'known' contaminated sites are of greater concern than 'suspect' sites. Upgradient sites are of greater concern than downgradient sites. As the distance between the subject site and the contaminated site increases, the concern decreases. These factors together with site specific factors (e.g., sources, extent, potential to impact groundwater) help the assessor determine whether further action is warranted.
Regulatory Agency File Review
If the assessor believes there is a potential for a listed site to adversely affect the subject property, then the assessor may recommend a review of environmental regulatory agency files for the identified site. Regulatory agency records may provide useful information such as the following:
- the source and history of the release
- the location of the release at the identified site in relation to the subject property
- investigative activities that have been conducted
- remedial activities that have been conducted
- resources that have been impacted
- involvement the regulatory agency has had in the investigative/remedial activities conducted
- whether the extent of the contamination has been defined
- whether the investigative/remedial activities have been conducted in compliance with local, state, or federal regulatory requirements
- whether the regulatory agency has issued a 'No Further Action' (NFA) or closure letter regarding the release
- basis of a closure or NFA letter, if it has been issued
The assessor will often attempt to copy critical pieces of documentation from the agency file, such as:
- contaminant plume diagrams
- soil sampling and/or groundwater monitoring well location diagrams
- laboratory analytical result tables
- closure or NFA letters from regulatory agencies
The assessor should evaluate, based on the information collected, the potential for the identified site to pose an environmental concern to the subject property. If this potential is minimal, then this is stated in the report. If the assessor believes that the potential exists for the identified site to pose an environmental concern to the subject property, then the assessor may recommend a subsurface investigation. Subsurface investigations can include collecting soil and/or groundwater samples from the site, conducting a ground penetrating radar or metal detection survey, conducting a soil gas survey or other activities.
Departments of Health and Environment
A review of documentation maintained by the local Department of Health and Environment might provide information regarding departmental inspections of the subject property, including a description of violations. In addition, information regarding the following issues may also be included in local Department of Health and Environment records:
- hazardous material use, storage
- Hazardous or medial waste generation, storage, or disposal
- groundwater aquifer information (e.g., depth, flow direction, potability, contaminant concentrations)
- current or former presence of onsite wells or septic tank systems
- current or former landfills in the area
- radon concentrations in the area
- asbestos removal or airborne fiber monitoring
- other indoor air or public health concerns
- sketches or plans
Fire Department records typically contain information regarding the following:
- current or former presence of USTs or ASTs, including; registration information, installation/removal dates, type of construction, tank capacity, tank contents, and tank compliance status
- sampling data collected during the removal of former USTs
- current or former hazardous (flammable) material or waste storage onsite
- sketches or plans
Fire department personnel are also useful in obtaining information regarding hazardous material use and mishaps at adjoining or nearby properties.
City and County Planning Departments
Documentation typically maintained by the local City or County Planning Department may include the following:
- current or former zoning status
- information regarding the general land uses in the area of the subject property (e.g., light industrial, commercial)
- current and historical aerial photographs
- sketches or plans
Building Permit and Inspection Departments
Building Department records may provide the following types of information:
- Building and property sizes
- Construction dates
- Dates and sizes of any additions
- Construction materials (e.g., use of asbestos)
- Utilities provided with connection dates
- Legal description
- Property or building diagrams, showing specific site features (e.g., below-grade structures)
- Records of complaints or violations
Local and Regional Pollution Control Agency and Regional Water Quality Program
Documentation maintained by the local or regional Pollution Control Agency and Water Quality Program is very similar to that maintained by the state environmental regulatory agency, but, in most cases, pertains only to groundwater issues. Groundwater investigation and remediation information is typically maintained by this agency. Also, like the state environmental regulatory agency, the regional water quality program might oversee any groundwater investigation or remedial activities conducted in that area.
The Water Quality Program might maintain information regarding groundwater contamination. Information regarding soil contamination at the same property might be maintained by a different municipal or governmental agency. Assessors should be aware that more than one agency or department might have pertinent information regarding potential environmental issues.
Electrical and Natural Gas Utility Company
Documentation that is maintained by the local Electric and Natural Gas Utility Companies may include the following:
- Utility connection dates
- Number of current or former electrical transformers onsite and the PCB-status of these transformers
The assessor can evaluate the potential for other heating fuel sources used onsite, particularly fuel oil (stored in USTs or ASTs) by knowing the natural gas connection date. Local Fire and Building Department records may also provide information about historical use of fuel oil in USTs or ASTs at the subject site.
How is the Records Review Information incorporated into the Report?
The information gathered during the records review process should be incorporated into pertinent sections of the report. One section of the report will typically include a summary of the records review results, but additionally the information should be incorporated to clarify issues discussed in other portions of the report. The assessor adds value to the project by incorporating the records review with the other aspects of the project and clearly communicating the results in a concise report.