Phase I Environmental Site Assessments were developed out of a need on the part of buyers and lending institutions to identify potential environmental risks associated with a property as a part of the due diligence process. As contaminated areas such as Love Canal, NY and Times Beach, MO made big headlines in the late '70s and early '80s, as people who lived near these sites became ill from their association with them, and as property owners and lenders recognized the associated liabilities and reduction in property values, the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment tool was developed to determine the potential for such liabilities.
Like many such efforts in the growing environmental field, the first efforts at Phase I's were fairly primitive. No databases of contaminated properties or hazardous waste generators existed. No standards existed to guide practitioners in what should be included in such an assessment.
As the industry grew and the need for such standards became evident, the ASTM E1527 "Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessment: Phase I Environmental Sites Assessment Process" was developed. The Standard primarily dealt, and still deals, with petroleum contamination, but the methodology it establishes is useful for all types of environmental issues. Such issues are then identified as a "recognized environmental condition" which under the standard is defined as:
"…the presence or likely presence of any hazardous substances or petroleum products on a property under conditions that indicate an existing release, a past release, or a material threat of a release of any hazardous substances or petroleum products even under conditions in compliance with laws. The term is not intended to include de minimus conditions that generally do not present a material risk of harm to public health or the environment and that generally would not be the subject of an enforcement action if brought to the attention of appropriate governmental agencies."
The Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is now used in securing an "Innocent Landowner Defense" under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). This defense requires that a buyer make "all appropriate inquiry" into the previous ownership and uses of the property consistent with good commercial or customary practice. Such defense provides the property owner with some relief should the property be identified as a source of a chemical release which occurred prior to their ownership.
The process of conducting a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment starts with a review of current and historical public records regarding the site. These may include building permits, Sanborn maps, topographical maps, aerial photographs and commercially available data bases which map registered tanks, LUST incidents, RCRA generators, disposal facilities, etc. Sources of information may also include the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), state EPA's (or equivalents), local or regional publicly-owned treatment works (POTWs), offices of the State Fire Marshals, municipal water sources, and local departments of buildings, public health, engineering and planning, fire protection, and waste, and commercial waste haulers.