July 19, 2011

Assessing the Assessor: Are We Headed to Heightened Scrutiny of the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment?

Posted on July 19, 2011 by Charles Efflandt

Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (Phase I ESAs) are conducted: (1) to assess environmental and health risks related to the acquisition and development of real property and (2) as a critical component of establishing the Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser (BFPP) or related defenses to “owner” liability under CERCLA. A recent ACOEL posting discussed the importance of compliance with post-closing BFPP obligations. What about the adequacy of the Phase I ESA process itself?

A Phase I ESA must satisfy the requirements of “All Appropriate Inquiry” (AAI), which have been incorporated in the ASTM E 1527-05 Standard. Phase I ESAs are not, however, typically examined by environmental agencies and there is a dearth of judicial interpretation of the AAI requirements. To date, the determination of AAI compliance and BFPP status has been the province of the regulated and not the regulators.

The scenario is familiar. A transaction includes the acquisition of commercial property. The client has a general notion of AAI and the importance of the Phase I ESA to achieve BFPP status. The client usually does not know, or care to know, the specific elements of AAI. The Phase I ESA often becomes a transactional commodity to be purchased from the lowest bidder. Lawyers are content to accept the results of the bidding war, relying on the self-certification of the Environmental Professional (EP) that the assessment is compliant with the ASTM Standard. The ESA is conducted, the report issued and the transaction closed with everyone satisfied that environmental risk management has been adequately addressed. This process appears appropriate, at least when agencies or courts are not called upon to perform a more rigorous evaluation.

February 14, 2011 report issued by the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) may serve as the impetus for a more cautious approach to selecting the EP in transactional and Brownfield grant matters and for more carefully evaluating Phase I reports. The OIG report documents the results of its evaluation of 35 AAI/Phase I reports generated by EPs for Brownfields Program grantees. The OIG concluded that none of the Phase I reports satisfied all of EPA’s AAI rule requirements. OIG criticized EPA for its complete reliance on EP self-certifications of compliance, its failure to establish accountability for compliant reports and the lack of procedures for reviewing reports to determine compliance with AAI requirements.

Although many of the AAI deficiencies cited by OIG were arguably very minor, the message sent was clear: Noncompliant Phase I ESAs introduce risk that the environmental conditions of a property have not been adequately assessed for the purpose of making informed property use and redevelopment decisions or for identifying risks to human health and the environment. OIG’s recommendations were equally clear – stop relying on EP self-certifications and develop a process for more careful scrutiny of AAI reports to determine actual compliance. The issues raised by the OIG report can, of course, be easily transformed into legal arguments in court where BFPP status may be in issue.

I suspect that many of us have been lulled to sleep by the self-certifications of the EP. Has the time arrived to more carefully assess the assessor and treat the Phase I ESA as a site-specific professional evaluation and not a low-bidder commodity required simply to seal the deal?

Tags: SuperfundCERCLABrownfields

Brownfields | Superfund | CERCLA

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