No Unanimity As To What New ASTM E1527-13 Standard Requires

Some environmental practitioners contend that Phase I site assessments, commonly used in real estate transactions, will now be more costly and time consuming due to the new standard. Seyfarth Shaw counsels in its Client Alert that the new standard requires that, “if the subject property has soil contamination or is underlain by groundwater contamination, unless the risk of vapor intrusion can be screened out, Phase II sampling likely will be necessary.”

But is that really the case? In his article titled, “Confusion on Role of VI in New ASTM E1527-13 Standard,” environmental guru, Larry Schnapf, argues that these law firms’ predictions are “simply incorrect.” Schnapf points out that the revised version of E1527 clarifies that the vapor intrusion pathway is like any other contaminant’s pathway and the potential for vapor intrusion should be evaluated and addressed as part of a Phase I inspection.

However, all a consultant is required to do as part of a Phase I is to recognize environmental conditions – the presence or potential presence of releases of hazardous substances. A consultant that identifies a REC due to an actual or potential source of soil or groundwater contamination will not normally collect samples as part of a Phase I.

Contrary to the interpretation of the new Phase I standard offered by some, Schnapf advises:

From a practical standpoint, the question of whether vapor intrusion should be independently flagged as a REC will only really be an issue for off-site releases where vapor intrusion is the only pathway for contamination to migrate onto the property. When the target property already has soil or groundwater contamination, the consultant would flag that contamination as a REC.

Thus, according to Schnapf, if a consultant determines that there is potential vapor intrusion because of the presence of an REC, the consultant is not required to actually collect sub-slab or indoor air samples as part of its Phase I.

The issue takes on additional importance when one also considers that Phase I diligence is required to protect both landowners and lenders from liability under CERCLA. 

According to USEPA,

"All Appropriate Inquiries," or AAI, is a process of evaluating a property’s environmental conditions and assessing the likelihood of any contamination…..The All Appropriate Inquiries Final Rule provides that the ASTM E1527-05 standard is consistent with the requirements of the final rule and may be used to comply with the provisions of the rule.

The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (the “Brownfields Amendments”) amended CERCLA to provide protections from liability for certain landowners and prospective purchasers of properties who can demonstrate compliance with specific statutory criteria and did not cause or contribute to contamination at the property.  

Therefore, if the Phase I diligence the new owner performs does not meet the revised ASTM E1527-13 standard, in the opinion of the Agency, due to the omission of vapor intrusion screening, there may be considerable adverse consequences down the road for both landowners and lenders.

The additional transactional cost to the real estate community in performing many thousands of  vapor intrusion studies in Phase I assessments each year is likely to be considerable. Considering that vapor intrusion is just one of many RECs, does it make sense from an environmental perspective to do these surveys as a matter of course?  More importantly, does the new standard require that these screenings be performed at all? 

Can Phase I Reports Hurt Your Client?

In an article titled, “How Phase I Reports Can Hurt Your Clients,” (ALI-ABA Practical Real Estate Lawyer, Vol. 27, No. 6, November 2011), environmental guru Larry Schnapf cautions purchasers of property that an ill-conceived Phase I report may result in their losing CERCLA ability protection or expose them to misrepresentation claims.  The article’s primary concern is that a Phase I report may not necessarily assist a purchaser in establishing a CERCLA:  1) third-party defense; 2) innocent landowner defense; or 3) bona fide prospective purchaser defense, the requirements for each of which are set forth in the statute. 

To qualify for CERCLA liability protection, a property owner or operator must, among other things, demonstrate that it investigated the past use and ownership of the property consistent with the requirement of the EPA “All Appropriate Inquiries” (“AAI”) rule and exercised appropriate care with respect to contamination at the property.  In an earlier article, “The New ‘All Appropriate Inquiries’ Rule,” (ALI-ABA Practical Real Estate Lawyer, January 2007), Schnapf observes that ASTM’s standard practice for environmental site assessments (ASTM E1527-00) may be inconsistent with the statutory criteria set forth in Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002 (the “2002 Brownfields Amendments”) and spurred EPA to develop the AAI rule.  Thereafter, ASTM worked with EPA to revise E1527-00 to ensure that a revised standard would satisfy the requirements of the AAI rule. When EPA issued the final AAI rule, which became effective November 1, 2006, the agency announced that E1527-05 was now consistent with the final rule so that environmental site assessments consistent with the ASTM standard could be considered compliant with the rule.  Do pitfalls remain?

Schnapf cautions that the absence of a “recognized environmental condition” (“REC”) in a Phase I may not guarantee that there is no “business environmental risk” (“BER”).  For example, over the years, some Phase I reports have come to include environmental issues (e.g., asbestos, lead-based paints, radon mold) that do not fall within the definition of an REC because they do not involve releases of hazardous substances, although they could still be of concern to a property owner, tenant or lender.

  In Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company et al. v. Morgan Stanley Mortgage Capital Inc. (MSMCI), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69168 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2011), a New York federal district court denied a motion to dismiss filed by a mortgage originator who was alleged to have failed to adequately disclose environmental conditions at a shopping center.  In that case, a mortgage loan purchase agreement was entered into in connection with a shopping center that had been constructed on a former landfill.  The landlord at the shopping center was required to monitor methane gas and had been subject to a number of violations.  Just before the loan closed, the largest tenant of the shopping center issued a Notice of Default accusing the owner of failing to properly manage the methane gas and alleging that methane gas levels had reached dangerous levels.  Although the landlord’s Phase I discussed the methane issue, the court declined to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss finding that the purpose of the report was to identify RECs, that the report had not identified any RECs.  The court held that an “item of environmental concern” was not necessarily congruent with an REC.  Accordingly, the court found there was a legitimate dispute as to whether the Phase I had adequately disclosed the existence of a material environmental threat, which resulted in the loss of the primary tenant.

In addition to providing a caution to due diligence counsel concerning the scope of the Phase I, Larry also raises a concern about the practice of some environmental consultants in providing recommendations for further investigation or remediation in the Phase I report.  If such recommendations are made, and the purchaser fails for any reason to promptly implement them, the purchaser’s bona fide prospective purchaser defense arguably may be jeopardized.  Accordingly, the article recommends that any recommendations for further investigation or remediation be provided by the consultant in a separate letter to counsel and not be transmitted to the client directly.