Posted on January 23, 2012 by Charles Efflandt
Phase I report “reliance letters” issued by an Environmental Professional (EP) may be misunderstood and misused in the context of conducting CERCLA All Appropriate Inquiry (AAI). The term “reliance letter,” in fact, is nowhere to be found in either the Federal All Appropriate Inquiry Regulations or the related ASTM Standard E 1527-05.
Consider the following common AAI situation: A client has contracted to buy property for which a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (Phase I ESA) report was recently prepared for the seller. To avoid the costs of obtaining a new Phase I report, the client asks whether it can use the Phase I provided by the seller to satisfy its environmental diligence obligations. The Phase I report explicitly states that it can be used and relied upon only by the contracting user for which it was prepared. The EP may be willing to issue a reliance letter to the client for a fee or occasionally at no cost. But what exactly is a reliance letter and how does it relate to the objective of compliance with AAI requirements?
Unauthorized use prohibitions and reliance letters are intended to protect EPs from potential claims by third-parties who may rely on a Phase I report prepared for another. Nevertheless, an unsophisticated third-party recipient of a reliance letter may construe such a letter as documentation of compliance with AAI requirements. A reliance letter establishes the recipient’s status as an authorized “user” primarily for purposes of the party’s legal relationship with the EP. Requesting a reliance letter to establish authorized user status is only one of several AAI issues that should be considered by third-party users of Phase I reports.
Other important questions to be considered include whether the one year/180 day regulatory shelf-life of the report has expired. Also, what independent inquiries must a third-party undertake to satisfy the AAI regulations? Third-party recipients of reliance letters may easily overlook conducting the “user” inquiries required by the AAI regulations.
The ASTM Standard further contemplates that the results of the user’s separate inquiries be provided to the EP prior to completion of the EP’s Phase I tasks (the AAI regulations are less clear). How do those provisions of the ASTM Standard apply to the third-party reliance situation? Is the third-party user obligated to accumulate the necessary user information and provide it to the EP after-the-fact? If so, how should the EP deal with any new substantive information? Also, if the results of the user inquiry are not referenced in the Phase I report, how does the third-party document that it has satisfied those obligations?
Of course, the EP may decline to issue a reliance letter or may impose costs or terms that are unacceptable. The EP may even suggest that, absent such use and reliance authorization, a new Phase I ESA must be conducted. But is that correct? The regulations set out conditions for third-party use of information contained in a Phase I report prepared for another. No requirement that the EP preparing the report issue a reliance letter is included among those conditions. The ASTM Standard specifically provides that no particular legal relationship between the EP and the user is necessary for the user to satisfy AAI obligations. With or without a reliance letter, the AAI regulations and ASTM Standard contemplate that the third-party may use the results of a report prepared for another person to partially satisfy its AAI obligations.
These questions, and perhaps others, suggest that a third-party user of a Phase I report prepared for another should be aware of the limitations of a reliance letter, if issued, and carefully consider all pertinent regulations in conducting its AAI.