Sitting at a Starbucks at in Dallas, Texas, I'm looking North at a Chevron-branded station owned by TETCO. This is clearly noted on the sign with regular gasoline at $3.19 per gallon. Clearly I am sitting downhill from the station, and if my client were buying the shopping center, my first suggestion would be testing the groundwater to see if the underground storage tanks containing various grades of gasoline or diesel below the gas station/convenience store have leaked and contaminated the property--under the Starbucks. When I visit this site after dropping my daughter at school, I see the capped groundwater monitoring wells. I would venture a guess that the hundreds of people who walk over or park on top of them have no idea what they are? The two charming elderly women sitting outside the women in front of me have no idea that their may be gasoline and diesel 10 or 20 feet below their feet. In reality, they probably have no reason for concern. But a new standard for assessing risk from vapors from soil and groundwater may create havoc for real estate developers and banks.
Thinking about these issues is no different from any day in the office as an environmental lawyer. (The "office" having grown with laptops, Blackberries, and cell phones to be about anywhere I am, ergo sitting in Starbucks with my T-Mobile connection blogging about an environmental issue--the mobile environmental lawyer.) Tanks leak. Piping leaks. People drive off and pull of the hose dispenses or otherwise spill fuels. This is nothing new and has been going on for decades. What is new is an ASTM standard for assessing the risk that those chemicals in the soil and groundwater are turning into vapor and getting into a building? Could this new standard wreak havoc on the Phase I environmental site assessment process? Could it be that I'm breathing benzene as I sit here typing this message?
It's actually unlikely. My toxicologist friends working who work with me to assist clients in advising clients who remediate contaminated sights say it is highly unlikely in most instances. In fact, they tell me it is when you fill up your car that you get your biggest shot of benzene--a known human carcinogen.
So why the ASTM standard for assessing these risks if in fact they are so unlikely? In the environmental regulatory world I live in as a corporate environmental lawyer since I graduated from Harvard Law School over 20 years ago, the regulatory agencies have begun to focus on these issues. Yes, primarily in California, where all environmental regulatory programs tend to start (California has enacted and will be implementing a climate change greenhouse gas program before the Congress passes a bill), and the Texas environmental agency has not really tackled this issue and does not necessarily require that it be assessed. Reportedly, the California agency is going back to sites closed under old rules that did not require vapor intrusion analysis and requiring that the sites be re-examined. EPA has issued guidance documents on the subject of vapor intrusions and how to test for it.
As regulatory agencies and scientists begin to look at vapor intrusion into buildings, these issues have come up in real estate transactions in many parts of the country. Real estate developers, real estate investment trusts, and banks then start to ask questions and the environmental lawyers and environmental consultants that work for them in their transactions start to ask questions. Is vapor intrusion a problem? What are the concentrations of chemicals in buildings that may arise from human sources in the ground (in soil and groundwater)? Do such concentrations present a risk to people who work, live, visit these buildings?
The new ASTM standard is titled "Standard Practice for the Assessment of Vapor Intrusion into Structures on Property Involved in Real Estate Transactions" (E-2600-08). Roger Smith of Weston in Dallas provided this summary of the Standard.
The standard provides for a tiered approach to assessing and mitigating vapor intrusion conditions (VICs):
– Screening Level Assessment conducted with information typically gathered for a Phase I ESA (current and previous property use, location relative to potential sources, etc.) to decide if a potential vapor intrusion condition (pVIC) is present. It would make sense to include a request for a E 2600-8 Tier 1 VI screening level assessment along with the standard ASTM E1527 Phase I ESA. Since the assessment is based to a large degree on information gathered for the Phase I, there should be little additional cost associated with the screening levels assessment.
– Screening Level Assessment conducted by comparing information typically gathered in a Phase II ESA (soil and groundwater analytical data) to risk-based concentrations (look-up values) to decide if a pVIC is present. The Tier 2 VI assessments will mostly likely be requested whenever a standard Phase II ESA is requested. Since this is comparison to look-up values, there should be little additional cost associated with the Tier 2 screening level assessment.
– Vapor Intrusion Condition Assessment using modeling, soil gas samples, sub-slab vapor samples (from within buildings), and/or indoor air samples to decide if a VIC is present. This would be conducted when it has been determined that a pVIC is present that could affect current or future development on the property. The least expensive approach is likely to be modeling using existing data. This is typically a very conservative approach that may overestimate the risk of a VIC. If additional sampling is needed, the cost for conducting a VI assessment would typically be less than the cost for a Phase II assessment of the property.
– Vapor Intrusion Mitigation by building design, institutional controls, or engineering controls (removal of source, barriers, or mitigation systems). The scope and cost would be highly variable for Tier 4. For new construction, all three options are available. For existing construction, you are typically looking at the options for engineering controls.
The Standard is dense and may cause insomnia for even an environmental lawyer or consultant, but it does have potential implications for real estate transactions. While it is not a part of the Phase I Site Assessment Standard which is used on almost all commercial real estate transactions, it is an add on to this standard. It may in time become a standard practice to evaluate soil vapor intrusion.
If this happens, it may raise new issues and confusion in the commercial real estate market. Banks will be unfamiliar with it and may be skiddish about chemical vapors and buildings. What we need is to try to educate the real estate and banking industry about these issues. While it will take time, it may be important not to scare off buyers and banks over vapor intrusions.
First, real risks may be rarely found. The concentrations necessary to create a risk to workers in office buildings and industrial or warehouse settings are probably going to be rare. People may need to work in buildings for 20 or 30 years, which is rare these days. For residences, the concentrations are probably rarely going to raise a concern. Second, for new buildings a vapor barrier can be constructed to prevent vapors from entering structures. For old buildings, steps can be taken to vent the vapors.
Environmental assessments have become a standard practice in the real estate industry. If vapor intrusion assessments become more commonly a part of those assessments, we need to be sure they don't become a source of undue alarm. As commercial real estate faces the collateral damage of the subprime mortgage debacle, we need to take care that a new environmental concern and potential risk does not hamper transactions and the health of the market. Understanding the scientific realities and real risk analysis is the first step in this process.