Adventures in Environmental Due Diligence
August 16, 2019
By Jim Young, P.G.
Senior Geologist, Environmental Division
This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.
It is not uncommon for environmental consultants to regard due diligence work as basic commodity projects—primarily a means to produce additional work and coach young professionals. Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) were among my first project efforts more than 25 years ago. Having completed or managed hundreds of ESAs since then, environmental due diligence projects represent some of the most interesting and downright adventurous work I perform.
In the first year of my career, and one of the first ESAs on my own, I was completing a site reconnaissance of a buy-here, pay-here auto sales and service lot. My sense was there was a lot of repeat service. The owner, trying to persuade me to look the other way, presented me an offer (well, several offers) over the course of the day: immaculately maintained vehicles at never-before-provided prices, incredibly flexible payment terms, environmental management of his facility, and even potential future ownership!
This was my first exposure to an entirely hygiene-optional workplace. Several of his employees, clearly having the utmost respect for their employer, were pleased to point out the many environmental skeletons they were hiding. A covered dry well, reportedly used for “management” of waste oils and other fluids, became a point of contention. By the end of the day, the generous offers made by the owner were notably rescinded.
I’m writing this article for From the Trenches, which reminds me of another adventure. A buyer of a rural property—a former service station in the 1940s to 1950s—requested Phase II soil sampling to evaluate potential historic impacts by leaded gasoline. The local municipality was concurrently installing a utility line through the property along an adjoining street, which conveniently made a trench available for sampling.
My field screening of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) resulted in the highest detections I have seen to date—consistently greater than 9,999 parts per million, the extent of my detector’s ability to quantify VOCs in the air. An employee of the municipality happened to see me in the trench while driving by the site and casually offered a particularly meaningful bit of insight…
While excavating the trench the previous week, the contractor’s backhoe created a spark by striking sandstone bedrock in parts of the trench, and the trench was promptly consumed by fire. Needless to say, I hightailed it out of the trench and declined the municipal employee’s offer to collect samples for me. Unsurprisingly, the buyer passed on this acquisition.
Of course, not all adventures have been contentious or downright dangerous. At a manufacturing facility in western Pennsylvania that used goats instead of lawnmowers, I met an extremely friendly goat that accompanied me for all the exterior work and was quite distressed to see me depart. I have been all but face-to-face with William Penn while on the roof of a high-rise across the street from City Hall in Philadelphia. I have seen and learned in detail how an incredible variety of products are designed, manufactured, transported and used. And perhaps most importantly, I have formed longstanding relationships with clients and property owners that have extended well beyond the site work.
Environmental due diligence work can truly provide interesting and complex projects, despite its adherence to strict industry standards. Ultimately, every site has its own history, which we determine through interviews of current and previous owners and operators, review of historic aerial photography, fire insurance maps, and other resources often dating back to the 1930s and even to the late 1800s.
Although my work is focused in Pennsylvania, I have completed ESAs or related work throughout much of the U.S., and each site has a distinct geologic and hydrogeologic setting. Every client, buyer, seller, tenant, lender and employee I work with provides a new story or perspective.
While ESAs and due diligence work offer both the expected and unexpected, we are always learning something new, and doing so quickly. There are surely more environmental due diligence projects in my future with many adventures yet to come—although I’d like to avoid any more flaming trenches.
How do petroleum-impacted trenches erupt in flames?
Gasoline (even highly weathered gasoline in the subsurface for a long period of time) contains a variety of chemical constituents classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs in gasoline include benzene, ethylbenzene, trimethylbenzenes, toluene and xylenes.
VOCs have a high vapor pressure at room temperature, which commonly results in gradual evaporation of the compound into air. In the story, trenching through the area of significantly petroleum-impacted soils exposed the soil to air. This greatly increased the rate of evaporation, resulting in high concentrations of VOCs in the air.
VOCs are generally flammable at low concentrations (and are toxic in breathing air at much lower concentrations). A single spark was all it took to ignite the vaporized VOCs, resulting in a flaming trench.
About the Author:
Jim is a Professional Geologist and Senior Project Scientist in POWER Engineers’ York, Pennsylvania office. He has more than 23 years of intensive professional experience in a diverse range of environmental site investigations, with a focus on risk-based remedial approaches. Many of the projects that Mr. Young has managed, through the use of risk management, risk-based corrective action, regulatory negotiations, and innovative remedial technologies, have resulted in substantial benefits in regard to cost and time savings. Got a question for Jim? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.