Curren Environmental Blog

                       Environmental Due Diligence

Posted by David C Sulock on Jan 22, 2018 2:40:50 PM

 

If you are purchasing a commercial property, you will be advised to perform reasonable due diligence prior to acquisition.  The standard is performing an ASTM Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA).     A Phase I incorporates research of a site for the determination of past (historical) or current Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs) that could affect the value of the property.  Banks typically will require a Phase I for high-risk sites or when loan amounts reach a certain threshold.  Banks typically have buyers pay for a Phase I to protect the bank, as the bank does not want to have a mortgagee be burdened with undue environmental remediation expenses that could in turn affect their ability to pay the mortgage.
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 Any purchaser of commercial real estate is performing Phase I due diligence to protect their interest, not is once again not typically fulfilling a requirement of the law.  Due diligence is a prudent practice to follow for any commercial purchaser.   Many buyers contact our office with little to no real knowledge of what a Phase I is and are being directed to perform one by their attorney or realtor.  Many people view a Phase I as getting their hand stamped and the quicker the better so the transaction can go to settlement.  The due diligence aspect is many times an afterthought.

We are going to cover the different scenarios when a Phase I is completed and when a Phase II or III is triggered and why that is a good thing.

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The best possible outcome for all parties after completing a Phase I, in the eyes of a buyer or seller is that the Phase I finds no issues with the site and accordingly there are no recommendations that any additional work is required such as a Phase II or Phase III.   This is not as common an outcome as many people think or expect.  Sellers do not want you to complete a Phase I as it delays the settlement and opens up the possibility that the Phase I may find an issue.   Buyers do not want a Phase I performed for the same reasons, citing the time it took to find the perfect site at the right price as well as monies already spent to date.  The Phase I is viewed as a necessary evil and one that at best could cost money and delay the sale from 2 to 6 weeks and at worst strike a crushing blow to the sale when a problem is uncovered that the owner was unaware of and unable or unwilling to address.

The odds that the Phase I will come back clean, meaning no RECs are found, is based on numerous factors including the date of site development and historical usage of the site.  We have found that some of the most innocuous appearing sites (upholstery and insurance office), have been found to have potential environmental concerns from PRIOR usage.

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A common Phase I situation is a client that is not required to perform a Phase I by the bank either because the loan amount is not triggering it or they are paying cash or there is a 1031 exchange.  These are rush hand stamped Phase I’s as there are already planned deadlines and the Phase I request is coming from the buyers attorney.  The rush part of the Phase I need is not based on anything pertinent relative to environmental conditions, but rather business or financial needs.   This is where hand stamping is most common.   Timing is relative and the sooner a decision is made on performing the Phase I the faster it will be completed.  In a perfect world a Phase I would be initiated by the seller prior to listing the property for sale.  In practice, it is one of the last things a buyer completes.

Time necessary to complete a Phase I varies.  Most Phase I’s are completed within three weeks, some can take as long as 6 to 8 weeks.  The difference in timing is based on the presence of records at the State and local levels.  The presence of files for a site at an environmental agency is typically unknown until a Phase I is initiated and the agencies are contacted regarding any files.  If files are found, the review of reasonably ascertainable files is required.  There could be a multiple week wait to get access to these files as they may be in storage or the first available date the State gives is 4 weeks away.   The time to access environmental files at a State level is the under looked aspect of a Phase I.  The determination that no files exist allows the Phase I process to be expedited.  The presence of environmentally-associated records indicates that investigation/remediation work may have been initiated or completed.  Records must be reviewed by a person with the experience and knowledge of applicable regulations to confirm that investigations/remediation has been completed in accordance with the local, State and Federal regulations.  A recent Phase I had pertinent files that were at the State.  Based on ability to accumulate the records and schedule the first available review date, it took five weeks to just perform a cursory review.  The review found that the site was formerly a gas station and had gas tanks removed and properly closed though the State.  What the file review did not indicate was the presence of other tanks on the site that appeared to have been either removed or left in place.  The unknown tanks consisted of a heating oil, waste oil and kerosene tank.   This triggered the need for a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of the site to search for the possible missing tanks.  In this case, the buyer was sure that all the tanks were removed and signed off by the State, unfortunately that was not the case.  In this case, the buyer did not buy the site and the owner had more work to complete including the removal of the tanks.

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When you start a Phase I, anticipate that a Phase II may be the necessary.  A Phase II is testing or further invasive evaluation of a suspected environmental concern.   Another Phase I performed found the need to complete soil borings on the site in areas where the operations of the site may have allowed historical seepage of oils and chemicals into the soil.  The Phase II did indeed find contamination in all the borings completed.   At this point the purchaser was into the property for over 20K, which including attorney’s fees, zoning applications, engineering and environmental.  The next step after finding an area of contamination is to determine the extent of contamination and the associated costs for remediation.  This added weeks upon weeks to the financial deal which could lead to the potential purchaser to look for another property weighed against the monies spent to date.  Most contracts allow the buyer or seller to back out of the transaction if repair expenses exceed a dollar amount or a time limit.   Usually at this point the buyer, thinking they were buying a clean site, is upset about monies thrown down the drain and when the end will occur.   Rarely does the purchaser weigh the fact that the Phase I did exactly what it was designed to do which is evaluate for potential environmental issues that could devalue the site.   Slightly less than $100,000.00, later and almost 7 months from the start of the Phase I was the property cleaned up.  The buyer dodged a remediation expense that surely would have been in their lap if the property was bought without a Phase I as the party they sell too would most likely not be as foolish to purchase without performing Due Diligence.

The photo below is a drum storage area, the floor below the wood was heavily stained.  It was flagged in the Phase I as an AOC and testing was recommended and the testing found contamination.

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Phase I cost sharing.  Due to the unexpected outcome of any Phase I’s in some instances the expense of the Phase I is shared between buyers and sellers.  The advantage for both parties it not just financial (50/50 split), but ownership of the report.  If the transaction falls apart for reasons other than environmental finds issues, the owner has possession of the report and can share same with the next prospective purchaser.

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Phase II cost sharing is more complicated.  The Phase II by definition involves physical examinations and in many cases testing.  Phases II expenses can dwarf the cost of a Phase II and due to the potential of finding an issue, many sellers would prefer the testing not be performed.  This is particularly common when the issues being investigated relate to potential conditions that predate the current owner.  This is a very common situation if the current owner purchased the site in the last 20 years and did not perform a Phase I.  Cost sharing is again valuable as the owner has rights to the report and data generated by the Phase II.   In most cases if the Phase II finds an issue that must be addressed or remediated (Phase III) the phase II has to be shared with the owner to document the findings.   Phase I cost sharing is far more common than in Phase II situation.

Tags: Phase I, Due Diligence, Phase II

Why Perform a Phase I Environmental Assessment Review?

Posted by David C Sulock on Apr 8, 2016 11:00:00 AM

Who Requires A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA)?

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Who Requires A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA)?

Traditionally, a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) was contracted by the bank or lending institution on properties where financing was being arranged.  The Phase I was primarily performed for the protection of the banks, who were concerned that if they loaned money for a contaminated property they may be held liable for the site cleanup.   This belief was incorrect as banks have liability protection on loans.   Today, many banks with loans under a million dollars and borrowers supplying a down payment do not require a Phase I.  This has been an industry shift over the past several years as banks have come to understand where their limit of liability stands.    The real liability is financially for the bank, as they are concerned that the cost of environmental work can hinder the borrower from paying the mortgage and defaulting.  Leaving the bank to own the asset.   Banks want to loan money and receive mortgage payments not foreclose on bad loans.

What is included in a Phase I?

The Phase I is a property assessment that includes a walkover of the property and associated structures; a review of historic property information including maps, aerial photographs, deeds, telephone or address directories, etc.; a review of contaminated properties in the vicinity of the subject property; a summary of knowledgeable party information and review of prior reports; and the review of local, State and Federal files pertaining to the property address.

Items evaluated in the Phase I report include tanks, drains, pits, spills, in-ground and aboveground equipment, petroleum and chemical use, and environmental liens.

The Phase I report is typically research only.  Unless otherwise specified as part of the scope of work, testing or surveys are outside of the typical Phase I requirements. For more information on Phase I click here. 

Why complete a Phase I if my bank does not require one?

Although many banks are not requiring a Phase I on some commercial loans (under a million or low risk), the environmental regulations leave the burden of environmental responsibility on the property owner.  Performing a Phase I, allows a purchaser to complete the necessary due diligence.  This due diligence enables a purchaser to obtain prior to taking possession of a property.  Buyer beware is relevant now more than ever in commercial real estate transactions.  If a property is purchased without a due diligence and future evaluation and subsequent environmental issues are found in association with the property, the property owner is now burdened with the cost of remediating the issue. The performance of a pre-purchase Phase I could alleviate the potential for finding environmental issues in the future and thereby holding up future transactions.  As a potential purchaser, the determination of environmental issues on a property could be used as leverage for the seller to remediate the concern prior to purchase or could be used to negotiate the property value pending the need for the potential purchaser to perform the cleanup.

Phase I, II, III Questions? Click Here

If I do not do a Phase I and buy a property how would I ever find out if there was an environmental problem with the site?

The most common way is when you go to sell and the potential buyer completes a Phase I and discovers an environmental Area of Concern (AOC).   Today the largest purchaser of Phase I’s is not the banks, but commercial real estate investors and owners (*transactions under $1,000,000.00).

I own a property, never had a Phase I and I am now thinking of selling the property.  Do property owners have Phase I’s performed?

One of the largest shifts in the commercial real estate market today is that many landowners are having a Phase I performed to root out environmental issues before they become an issue when a buyer is found.   An owner performed Phase I is viewed as both a marketing tool and an environmental property assessment that can help sellers anticipate issues with a property.  It can be akin to a homeowner having a home inspection completed to address issues that a purchaser might find during their inspection. 

If an environmental issue is found in a Phase I report on a property I am buying, can I still purchase the property?

If the issue is fully disclosed to the lender (if one is involved) and the buyer is willing to accept the liability and cost of addressing the issue, then yes you can buy the property.  However, the real question is should I address the issue before buying the property?

The investigation of potential issues found in the Phase I is typically addressed as part of a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment.

Tags: Phase I

All Appropriate Inquiries Innocent Landowner Defense

Posted by David C Sulock on Feb 16, 2016 3:54:12 PM

 

Due Diligence and the Innocent Landowner Defense

 

The experienced and well informed know that due diligence is an important and common practice when purchasing real estate.  The advantage of due diligence and conversely not performing due diligence can best be compared to the saying "you break it, you buy it".  In real estate terms if you buy a property that has an environmental issue (broken) that you were not aware of prior to purchase, you own it and the issue is yours to pay for no matter the cost or value of the real estate.

For example a couple received an inheritance from a relative, the money's were substantial enough for the couple to realize a dream of buying and operating an automotive garage.  This dream was achieved by buying a garage cash from a fellow who was retiring.  They were able to buy the land and tools for approximately $100,000.00. (As a side note the lower the value of the property, the more risk there is that an environmental issue can be a large percentage of the property price. I say this as time and again prospective buyers defer a Phase I as the purchase price is low).   They used an attorney for the paperwork, but no bank was involved.  While the attorney advised of performing a Phase I, the buyers were not concerned and did not want to derail the deal for something they saw as a waste of time and money.   Couple buys property, run the garage for three years and then husband develops health concerns limiting physical activity such as working on cars.  Couple list property for sale, potential buyer finds property and decides to buy it.  Buyer goes to bank, as he is not able to pay cash as the current owner did.  Bank does phase I, finds issues leading to a phase II. Phase II finds oils in ground from garage operations. Buyer requires owner to remediate, owners say not their problem and are selling as is.  

Deal falls through, owner now paying money from retirement to cleanup the problem.  Buyer is gone, garage is closed and owners are spending 50% of what they paid to cleanup the site. 

Can the owners claim an innocent landowner defense?  

No, the innocent landowner defense is based upon a party purchasing a property and having no knowledge of contamination at time of purchase. A buyer must perform an all appropriate inquiries (AAI) prior to purchase to begin to have this defense.

 

What does an All Appropriate Inquiries (AAI) inquiry entail?

Completion of a Phase I ESA as per

  1. All Appropriate Inquiries

“All appropriate inquiries” refers to the process of evaluating a property’s environmental conditions and assessing potential liability for contamination either past or present.  This applies to any party seeking to assert protection from CERCLA liability as an innocent landowner, or a bona fide prospective purchaser, or a contiguous property owner. 

In 2002 Brownfields Amendments were set forth requiring the EPA to establish regulations establishing standards and practices for conducting all appropriate inquiries. These practices were meant to include research into the previous ownership and uses of a property necessary to qualify for certain landowner liability protections. 

November 1, 2005, the EPA published in the Federal Register its final rule entitled “Standards and Practices for All Appropriate Inquiries,” in which it declared that the American Society for Testing and Materials (“ASTM”) E1527-05 standard, entitled “Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process,” can be used to comply with the provisions of the rule.  The standards and practices constituting “all appropriate inquiries” are set forth in 40 C.F.R. Part 312.

 

Get answers to Phase I Questions

What is included in the All Appropriate Inquiries?

  1. Must be conducted or updated within one year of acquiring ownership of a property. 
  2. Interviews with past and present owners, operators, and occupants, the review of government records, visual site inspections, and searches for environmental cleanup liens, must be conducted or updated within 180 days prior to acquiring ownership of the property.
  3. An environmental professional must conduct or oversee the conduct of activities required by the all-appropriate inquiry rule. 
  4. The environmental professional must conduct the following inquiry activities:
  • Interviews with past and present owners, operators, and occupants of the facility for the purpose of gathering information regarding the potential for contamination at the facility;
  • Reviews of historical sources, such as chain of title documents, aerial photographs, building department records, and land use records, to determine previous uses and occupancies of the real property since the property was first developed;
  • Reviews of Federal, State, and local government records, waste disposal records, underground storage tank records, and hazardous waste handling, generation, treatment, disposal, and spill records, concerning contamination at or near the facility;
  • Walking inspections of the site and of adjoining properties;
  • Assessments of commonly known or reasonably ascertainable information about the property; and
  • Assessments of the degree of obviousness of the presence or likely presence of contamination at the property, and the ability to detect the contamination by appropriate inspection.
  • 5 Searches for recorded environmental cleanup liens against the site that are filed under Federal, State, or local law.
  1. Assessments of specialized knowledge or experience on the part of the prospective landowner.
  2. The relationship of the purchase price to the value of the property, if the property was not contaminated.

An innocent landowner defense also extends to the operation and maintenance of the site after purchase. Once the property is owned the new owner must take reasonable steps to stop any continuing release, prevent any future release, and prevent or limit human, environmental, or natural resource exposure to any previously released hazardous substances. The owner must also cooperate, provide assistance, and allow access to persons to conduct response actions or natural resource restoration at the site. Owners must maintain any and all land use restrictions and not degrade the effectiveness of institutional controls.

Additional responsibilities cover cooperating with requests and administrative subpoenas concerning the facility and follow through with all legally required notices (public notification and government) regarding the discovery or release of any hazardous substances at the facility.

Lastly to comply with AAI, the purchaser cannot be associated/affiliated with any other potentially responsible party through any direct or indirect familial relationship, or any contractual, corporate, or financial relationship (excluding relationships created by instruments conveying or financing title or by contracts for the sale of goods or services).

Bottom line the new owner has to be able to prove that the environmental contamination damages were caused by a third party with whom the new owner does not have an employment, agency, or contractual relationship, as defined in 42 U.S.C. § 9601(35).

Buyers beware and perform your due diligence so you know before you buy?

Tags: Phase I, AAI All Appropriate Inquiries

Why perform a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment

Posted by david sulock on May 4, 2011 10:42:00 AM

Who requires a Phase I ESA?

Traditionally, a Phase I was contracted by the bank or lending institution on properties where financing was being arranged.  The Phase I was primarily  performed for the protection of the banks, who were concerned that if they loaned money for a contaminated property they may be held liable for the site cleanup.  Today, many banks with loans under a million dollars and borrowers supplying a down payment do not require a Phase I.  This has been an industry shift over the past several years as banks have come to understand where their limit of liability stands.

Cost for a Phase I ESA

Phase I Environmental

 

 

What is included in a Phase I?

The Phase I is a property assessment that includes a walkover of the property and associated structures; a review of historic property information including maps, aerial photographs, deeds, telephone or address directories, etc.; a review of contaminated properties in the vicinity of the subject property; a summary of knowledgeable party information and review of prior reports; and the review of local, State and Federal files pertaining to the property address.

Items evaluated in the Phase I report include: tanks, drains, pits, spills, in-ground and aboveground equipment, petroleum and chemical use, and environmental liens.

Additional issues which may be included in the Phase I at the lenders or clients request include: wetlands, radon, asbestos, lead-based paint, and drinking water. 

The Phase I report is typically research only.  Unless otherwise specified as part of the scope of work, testing or surveys are outside of the typical Phase I requirements.

Why complete a Phase I if my bank does not require one?

Although many banks are not requiring a Phase I on some commercial loans, the environmental regulations leave the burden of environmental responsibility on the property owner.  Performing a Phase I, allows a purchaser to complete the necessary due diligence.  It is this due diligence that enables a purchaser to obtain prior to taking possession of a property.  Buyer beware is relevant now more than ever in commercial real estate transactions.  If a property is purchased without a due diligence evaluation and subsequent environmental issues are found in association with the property, the property owner is now burdened with the cost of remediating the issue. The performance of a pre-purchase Phase I could alleviate the potential for finding environmental issues in the future and thereby holding up future transactions.  As a potential purchaser, the determination of environmental issues on a property could be used as leverage for the seller to remediate the concern prior to purchase or could be used to negotiate the property value pending the need for the potential purchaser to perform the cleanup.

If I don’t do a Phase I and buy a property how would I ever find out if there was an environmental problem with the site?

The most common way is when you go to sell and the potential buyer completes a Phase I and discovers an environmental Area of Concern (AOC).   Today the largest purchaser of Phase I’s is not the banks, but commercial real estate investors and owners (*transactions under $1,000,000.00).

I own a property, never had a Phase I and I am now thinking of selling the property.  Do property owners have Phase I’s performed?

One of the largest shifts in the commercial real estate market today is that many land owners are having a Phase I performed to root out environmental issues before they become an issue when a buyer is found.   A buyer performed Phase I is viewed as both a marketing tool and an environmental property assessment that can help sellers anticipate issues with a property.  It can be akin to a homeowner having a home inspection completed to address issues that a purchaser might find during their inspection. 

If an environmental issue is found in a Phase I report on a property I am buying, can I still purchase the property?

 If the issue is fully disclosed to the lender (if one is involved) and the buyer is wiling to accept the liability and cost of addressing the issue, then yes you can buy the property.  But the real question is should I address the issue before buying the property?

The investigation of potential issues found in the Phase I is typically addressed as part of a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment.

Tags: Phase I, Environmental Site Assessment, ASTM 1527-05, Property Transaction Screens