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Level 1 or Phase 1

 Environmental Site Assessment

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In the past, when a parcel of land was traded, a careful buyer or lender would be concerned with issues of public safety relating to the structural integrity of buildings. Such things as buried underground tanks and garbage dumps were a concern for people stepping, falling or driving into underground void spaces and being injured. The crumbling of building footings built above unstable ground was a great concern.

Today these things are just as important. However, there is now a new list of public health and environmental safety issues for a buyer to address. The response to these questions is a Level 1 or Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment.

sometimes, after the old buildings burn down or are demolished,  the exact location of an old gas station like this one may be lost to time Mostly since the Second World War, the negative health effects of hazardous substances such as lead, asbestos, chlorinated hydrocarbons, radioactive materials, and many other hazards have become commonly known. Many of the underground storage tanks properly installed years ago have been found with leaks.

But many of the industrial and farm chemicals that concern us have been used for a relatively brief time in our history, less than sixty or seventy years. However, the public health and safety concerns when these materials show up on a parcel of land will be affecting people far into the future. Our knowledge of the long term health affects of hazardous materials in the environment increases daily.

We are exposed through the news to the most extreme of these issues in the form of lawsuits and sensational stories of ruined health and huge financial settlements. Many feel that these stories are exaggerations and that we need not concern ourselves with such things in daily commerce. In reality, long term studies concerning hazardous substances have taught us that there are real issues here. Long term exposure particularly to children of hazardous materials can have disastrous results. The ongoing crisis in Flint Michigan is perhaps the best known current example.

It is false to think that these concerns are only driven by government regulations.  The real concern comes from the banks, insurance companies, mortgage lenders, and underwriters who must pick up the pieces when a deal blows up over the discovery of an environmental hazard on a presumably clean property.  The government is mostly concerned with public facilities such as military bases and maintainance facilities, and they have plenty of these to deal with.

When property is traded, the knowledge of past practices that may reduce the present value is vital. This is accomplished in several ways. An experienced site assessor with a history of visiting and reporting on sites is the first line of defense for a careful buyer. The signs of hazardous conditions may be subtle but they are usually present. Public records can disclose not only site history but surrounding conditions that could impact value. All available sources of information are accessed including the thoughts of neighbors and public officials.


What is In a Level 1 or Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment?

A mostly pristine image showing the shoreline of Washington State's magnificent Lake Lenore lying at the heart of the Lower Grand Coulee north of Soap Lake and south of Dry Falls The Level 1 is a report. There are many checklists, forms and templates that are sometimes used to speed up the assessment process when unqualified assessors or owners are recruited to complete this part of a real estate sale. Many companies can offer packaged "assessments" that include a quick site visit and a report that is little more than a template mostly relying on public data sources. These templates seldom address the special conditions to be found on most sites. Public sources have many limitations. A custom narrative report is superior and often required if more than a token study is needed. Good reports contain a minimum of twenty or more written pages specifically about the site plus appended maps and data that can make it thirty or forty pages or more for a small site. Besides information learned during the site visit, maps of the site will probably be included. Usually one or sometimes two copies of the report are printed. Lawyers, lenders, underwriters or other interested parties designated by the owner can receive the report. A good assessor should be cautious about producing an electronic document such as an unsecured word document to the owner. Word documents can be easily altered after publication if not secured. PDF copies for the time being are difficult to alter and may also be protected with encryption or a password to help prevent unauthorized access. Owners and agents of the owner should not expect to review the document before publication except in rare cases such as reporting on facilities owned or leased by military contractors or other secure facilities.

In the report, the site map will show major listed hazardous sites for at least a mile radius. Rural areas often take a wider look. Detailed site maps should show locations of loading, processing and storage for materials that could potentially have contaminated the property or surroundings. Waste dumps, sumps, pits and landfills are of particular interest. A detailed map of the site would also show photo locations and findings of interest. Any assertions will be supported with historic air photos or topographic (contour) maps or other documents to give a clear picture of the process of the investigation. Pages of data from government sources will not suffice here although they are sometimes used as padding in an otherwise weak report.

Besides land transaction records at the courthouse, cities and counties maintain jacket files and property records pertaining to land use permitting and complaint files. Local health has records concerning complaints and known hazards to the environment and health. Public works and planning files may contain valuable facts. For example, if a site was operated as an orchard between the First and Second World Wars before the advent of DDT, the use of lead arsenate insecticide was likely. This information would be crucial to a Level 1 Environmental Site Assessment. A local irrigation district may have billing and water use records on a property to indicate use as an orchard when other sources are not available.   

unmarked drums such as these ones, some containing unknown liquids can be costly to check and can indicate practices that may require samplingState sources are generally accessible by the Internet and contain information about known and suspected hazardous sites, existing waste disposal sites, locations of leaking underground tanks and hazardous waste generators of all sizes. Water well information in your area can be particularly valuable.  You will discover that public sources can contain many mistakes and missing data. Personal knowledge of the area can be invaluable to avoid false positives. An assessor with an office from far outside the area of interest is suspect here. The cell phone exchange of the assessor will suggest his or her main stomping ground. Be careful if the number is out-of-state.  

 Possible Guideline for the Contents of a Level 1 or Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment Report follows. A Level one assessment report often follows guidelines such as those developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM.) The contents could include the following sections (this is a suggestion only and is not hard and fast;)  1. Introduction, 2. Scope of work, 3. Identification of the site (legal description,)  4. Environmental context - soils, geology and hydrology, 5. Zoning and surrounding land uses, 6. Observations and site visit, 7. Public record review and ideally including a chain of title showing relevant ownerships and legal actions such as lawsuits and enforcement actions, 8. Air Photo interpretation, 9. Personal Interviews and any prior reporting on the site, 10. Pictures of the site, 11. Conclusions and recommendations including proposed sampling protocols if any, 12. Limitations of the report, 13. Qualifications of the author, 14. Addendum including any relevant publications that would otherwise clutter the main report.

What is the Timetable and Cost of the Report? The report will take from two to four weeks or more to write depending on the size of the site and its complexity. The cost will usually begin at around $3000 for a simple site with no known problems. The person requesting the report will be asked if any hazards are known to exist on the site and the date and results of all discussions concerning the property should be documented. Notes, images and sketches are perpetually retained on the file. Usually only a portion of the information gathered finds its way into the report.


Federal Government sources are many. A complete level one assessment must include knowledge of the information available in the vast universe of federal government files. Only a few of the available federal databases follow.

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) for hazardous sites reported to the feds

  • National Priority List (NPL) for mostly Superfund sites

  • Emergency Response Notification System (ERNS) for reported hazardous releases

  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Information System (RCRIS) for waste generators

  • RCRA Administrative Tracking System (RAATS) for records of enforcement actions under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

  • Facility Index System (FINDS) facility information and other data such as enforcement actions

  • Material Licensing Tracking System (MLTS) for tracking radioactive materials

  • Federal Superfund Liens (NPL LIENS) lists of filed federal actions and notices

  • Hazardous Materials Information Reporting System (HMIRS) for hazardous spill incidents reported to DOT

  • PCB Activity Database System (PADS) for PCB tracking

  • Toxic Chemical Release Inventory System (TRIS) for records of facilities that release substances to the air or water

Detailed information will be required on contaminated sites closest to the subject property.  Much of this information can be pulled from state Ecology or DEQ websites including updated lists of hazardous generators and hazardous cleanup sites. Every assessor has trusted local and regional contacts within the government who talk relatively freely about cleanup sites. This information is after all public. Such information as groundwater flow direction and speed must be gained about the subject. The size and chemical composition of nearby plumes that are being tracked by regional cleanup companies are critical. Predicting potential affects on the subject property must be part of the report.  The ability to find the most reliable information on difficult or sensitive sites will distinguish the best assessors from the rest. The quality of Geographic and other details particularly on state databases can be terrible. Personal interviews with government regulators is usually much superior if you can get it.

You will seldom get to see an example of a level 1 or phase 1 environmental site assessment report unless you retain an assessor for your own property or know someone who has had this done. The information is private to the owner of the report. There are examples online of Phase 1 environmental assessments, mostly for public projects. However, these examples usually are for large scale projects and cleanups, and do not offer much of an example of more common reports on the many smaller sites.

Although most Level 1 reports don't, the report may indicate the need for a Level 2 assessment if something of interest is indicated on the subject or on a nearby contaminated site. In our 26+ years of investigative experience here in our mostly rural Central Washington region, we find the need for a Level 2 invasive study in less than 15% of our studied properties. 

Although it is always the desire of the owner that the level 1 or phase 1 environmental site assessment will disclose all hazards existing on the site, this is not possible. A report can only document the observations, findings, and opinions of the writer at the time of the assessment. The nonexistence of all possible hazards can only be guaranteed by excavating the entire site, usually an impractical idea. As long as the assessor is experienced, respected in the environmental community and diligent in the work, your obligation is met under the law.


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Last Revised: 05/22/2016 Level 1 or Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment
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