Displaying items by tag: Commercial

What is an Environmental Screening Level (ESL)?

KG well drilling 1

“I keep reading about how contamination levels are above the ESL, but all I really care about is closure. Instead, more samples and more talk about the ESL. I don’t know what this ESL is, but apparently I won’t get case closure until it is reached,” she said. “I’ve ignored it long enough - what is an ESL?”

“Good question,” I said. This prospective client came prepared with a tough question.

“ESL stands for Environmental Screening Level, '' I told her. “It’s the level of a chemical that signals there is a potential for harm to humans, water life, and animal life.” In the lull that followed, I added, “I know that’s a lot, so let’s start with where ESLs come from.”

 

Risk-Based Screening Levels (RBSLs) and Environmental Screening Levels (ESLs)

ESLs began as RBSLs

Risk-based screening levels (RBSLs) were first published by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Board) in 2000 as a way to speed up human health and environmental risk assessments for contaminated sites.

Assessments were made easier by using a set of site conditions to estimate chemical levels (risk-based levels) that pose no harm and using them for comparison with levels at a contaminated site. If contaminant levels in soil, groundwater, or soil vapor were found to be below the RBSLs, then the site was considered low risk, otherwise, contamination levels were judged to be a potential risk.

The scope of the RBSLs expanded, and in 2003 the Board changed the name to Environmental Screening Levels (ELSs). Since then there have been several updates with the last in 2019.

The Board states that ESLs are not cleanup goals, however, the Board also states that for many sites ESLs are selected as cleanup goals. At a minimum, the Board accepts ESLs as preliminary cleanup goals.

“Okay,” my prospective client said. “What does low-threat mean?”

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What is a Low-Threat Environmental Screening Level (ESL)?

In the context of ESLs, low-threat typically refers to chemical concentrations in soil, groundwater, or air that do not increase the chance of developing cancer or increase harm to humans.

For chemicals that cause cancer (carcinogen), low-threat means concentrations that result in less than one chance in a million (1 in 1,000,000) of developing cancer from lifetime exposure. For non-cancer-causing chemicals, a hazard quotient is used to gauge the potential for bodily harm. The hazard quotient is a ratio that compares the estimated exposure to a chemical to the reference level of that chemical at which no harmful health effects are expected. A hazard index of 1 or more indicates the potential for harmful non-cancer health effects.

“Well, thank you,” my caller said. “ If I understand you correctly, an ESL is an okay amount of contamination that is not a threat to human health and animals. I can appreciate that.” With that, we set up a time to talk about her site and ended our phone call.

Environmental Screening Levels and Cleanup Goals

We took a look at environmental screening levels, or ESLs, published by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. We noted that while ESLs are not specifically contamination cleanup goals, they can be used as cleanup goals and oftentimes are. Do you have a question about environmental investigation and cleanup? We have over 30 years of experience providing environmental services. Give us a call at 831-475-8141 or click the button below for a free consultation.

 

SP w carson river 027 10 10 2010 1In many cases, vapor intrusion mitigation is needed after investigation and cleanup at sites with difficult contaminants like tetrachloroethylene (PCE). This is because active cleanup methods may not remove all the contamination or cleanup may not be possible. In these cases vapor intrusion health risk remains. As a result, folks responsible for investigation and cleanup at site sites with difficult contaminants may be faced with a decision regarding vapor intrusion mitigation (VIM). At some sites, building occupancy is critical to maintaining business, and VIM is the only solution.

Three top passive VIM methodsn methods can be separated into two groups: passive and active. Here we take a look at three top passive VIM methods, but first let’s look at how VIM works.

How Vapor Intrusion Mitigation (VIM) Works

Volatile chemicals like PCE, when released into soil and groundwater, create a vapor that can enter a building through entry points like cracks or holes in slabs or basement floors and walls; openings around sump pumps and elevator shafts; or where pipes and electrical wires enter the building. It is also possible for vapors to pass through concrete, which is naturally porous. This movement of vapors from underground into a building is termed vapor intrusion. The purpose of VIM is to eliminate intrusion through building entry points.

What is Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation?

Passive VIM methods prevent chemical vapors from entering a building or reduce contaminant levels beneath a building. They tend to be cheaper than active methods. Typically, multiple passive VIM methods, like a floor seal with a sub-barrier, are used at the same time to provide a backup in case one of the VIM methods loses efficiency or fails. Three top passive VIM methods are: sealing, vapor barriers, and passive venting.

Three Top Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Methods

1) Sealing

Sealing entry points with a chemically resistant sealer is an important first step in VIM for existing buildings. Chemically resistant coatings can also be used to seal the floor, wall and entry points in an existing building and prevent vapor entry. Concrete can be poured on unfinished dirt floors to prevent entry.

Regulatory guidance suggests that in most cases sealing should be used with other VIM methods to provide a backup.

Vapor Barriers

Vapor barriers (also called sub-slab liners or passive membranes) are materials or systems installed below a building floor to block the entry of vapors. Most barriers use sheets of “geomembrane” or heavy-duty plastic placed between the sub-base and building floor to prevent vapor entry. Vapor barriers are best installed during building construction, but can be installed in existing buildings that have a crawl space or basement.

In principle, vapor barriers cause soil vapor to move laterally beyond a building footprint instead of into a building. In practice, vapor barriers are not able to completely eliminate vapor intrusion due to the likelihood of punctures, perforations, tears, and incomplete seals. As a result, regulatory guidance suggests vapor barriers be used in combination with passive venting or sub-slab depressurization (active mitigation).

Passive Venting

Passive venting involves installing a venting layer beneath a building to provide a pathway for soil vapor to move from below ground toward the sides of the building where it is vented outdoors. The system is designed to reduce or dilute subfloor contaminant levels. A venting layer can be included in new construction, but may be too expensive for an existing building. Passive venting is usually paired with a vapor barrier.

IMG00158 20100419 1622Passive venting systems typically consist of a layer of venting material (sand or pea gravel) emplaced below a floor slab to allow soil gas to move laterally under natural dilution or pressure difference. Soil vapor entering the venting layer is directed to the edge of the floor foundation by perforated pipes installed in the venting layer, either beneath the slab or at the periphery of the building foundation.

The vent piping usually comes together at a header pipe which runs vertically up the building wall and discharges above the roofline. Installation of a vertical inlet pipe that connects the vent layer with outside air and allows fresh air to enter the venting layer can help dilute chemical concentrations.

Regulatory guidance suggests constructing a passive venting system in a way that allows the system to become an active venting system with minimum effort if necessary (use of a fan or pump to move soil vapor from the venting layer to the header for discharge). Passive venting may not be appropriate in areas with a high groundwater table or surface water drainage problems because the venting layer will not work properly if saturated with water.

Finally, since the passive venting system discharges to air, it may need an air discharge permit to comply with applicable state or local air quality discharge regulations.

How do Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation (VIM) Methods Compare

Existing Building Versus New Construction

Sealing is appropriate for existing buildings and can be included into the design and construction of new buildings; however, in either case guidance suggests sealing be used with a barrier, passive venting, or sub-slab depressurization (as the name implies, used for slab-on-grade building construction). While sealing is applicable to new and existing buildings, it is not recommended as a stand alone VIM solution. 

When it comes to a vapor barrier or passive venting, installation in an existing building without a crawl space could be difficult and would likely require the floor to be removed and replaced. Removing and replacing a building floor, even if possible, would be expensive. As a general rule, VIM for an existing slab-on-grade building is restricted to sub-slab depressurization, an active VIM method. Sealing, vapor barrier, or passive venting are appropriate for new construction and existing  buildings with a crawl space, basement, or raised floor.

Sealing, Vapor Barrier, or Passive Venting

It is recommended that sealing or use of a vapor barrier include passive venting to counter the likelihood of leaks, punctures, perforations, tears, and incomplete seals. Sealing is already common practice in building construction and maintenance, so it is given that any existing or new construction is or should be sealed or re-sealed. This means in practice, most passive VIM systems will employ a vapor barrier and passive venting.

Other Passive VIM Methods

We took a look at three top passive VIM methods, but there are others. For example, in the case of new construction, installation of a building with a raised floor might be the best passive VIM method. A raised-floor design includes an open first floor or other well ventilated first floor design to interrupt vapor intrusion from entering the second story living/working space.

Another passive VIM method is termed “Institutional Control”. Institutional controls  typically use institutions (state, county or city government) to monitor and enforce property use controls through a land use covenant (LUC) or Covenant to Restrict Use of Property. The LUC may include multiple institutional controls with specific orders, prohibitions, restrictions and requirements to ensure property conditions under control remain unchanged and the risks, restrictions, and requirements to future buyers and occupants are disclosed.

An LUC may contain:

  • A notice that there is contamination that may cause vapor intrusion risk.
  • Prohibitions against specific uses of the property, interference with VIM systems, or activities that would disturb site conditions defined at the time the LUC is executed.
  • Property access agreements for the oversight institution and other relevant stakeholders.
  • Inspection and reporting requirements for the property owner.

For a LUC with California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the LUC must be approved by DTSC legal counsel and publicly recorded in the county recorder’s office.

Long-Term Responsibilities for Active Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Methods

All VIM methods mentioned require some sort of performance monitoring, so it is important to consider long-term responsibilities. For example, while passive venting avoids the long term cost to operate a fan or blower, it requires monitoring effectiveness by measuring chemical levels in sub-slab soil vapor or by measuring indoor levels. Similarly, use of sealing or a vapor barrier would require indoor air and sub-slab soil vapor sampling to monitor effectiveness.

To address the long-term nature of VIM, and the need to assure they work, regulatory oversight agencies typically expect VIM implementation to include a plan outlining operation and maintenance, monitoring, reporting, financial assurance, an implementation schedule, five-year review schedule, and identification of who is responsible for the work.

Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Methods: An Overview and How We Can Help

We took a look at three top passive vapor intrusion mitigation methods. We found that for most cases, passive venting is the top passive VIM method, and that passive venting is used with sealing or a vapor barrier to provide eSxtra protection from vapor intrusion. We noted that in most cases, passive VIM is only applicable for new building construction or buildings with a crawl space, basement, or raised floor. We also noted that implementation of VIM requires long-term operation, maintenance, and monitoring to show effectiveness over the life of VIM.

Due to the toughness of some contaminants like PCE, cleanup limitations, and site constraints, complete cleanup to regulatory-approved levels is not often possible. In many cases VIM is relied on to keep a building safe and occupied during the span between active cleanup and low-threat case closure.

If your site is facing VIM, we can help. We have over 30 years of experience in solving environmental problems including VIM. To get more information, call 831-475-8141 or click on the button for a free consultation.

How Much Will a Phase II Assessment Cost?

drilling in townA close friend called. She told me she was working on a development project, and just got the results of a Phase I Environmental Assessment. The assessment pointed to a potential obstacle to the project - a Recognized Environmental Condition (REC). The project site used to be a dry cleaner that closed up shop a few years back, and the assessment noted there could have been a release of tetrachloroethylene, or perchloroethylene (PCE) into the soil and groundwater. My friend was really upset. It was already difficult enough with stakeholders, banks, city and county regulators taking chunks of her time and money - now this. She was stressed. “Can you help?” she said, “Now they want a Phase II Assessment to investigate the REC (Recognized Environmental Condition). All I want to know is, how much is this going to cost?”

I paused for a moment thinking, “It depends…”, but quickly remembered the stress she was under. “How about we meet for coffee in a couple of hours and in the meantime, I will work up a cost for a Phase II Assessment for you?” That’s what she wanted to hear.

Why a Phase II Assessment is Often Recommended

A Phase II Assessment is often recommended to verify a REC (Recognized Environmental Condition). In the case of my friend, a Phase II was recommended to determine whether there was a release of PCE. Typically, a Phase II assessment entails collecting soil and/or groundwater samples and analyzing the samples for particular chemicals. Often, a Phase II Assessment means the same thing as a soil and groundwater investigation.

My friend described the site as a small empty retail unit at a shopping mall, so it seemed to me that we could find out if there had been a chemical leak by drilling three small-diameter holes into the ground to collect soil and groundwater samples. One at the former location of the dry-cleaning machine, one at the floor drain, and one along the sewer leaving the unit. At least two soil samples and one groundwater sample would be collected from each hole, and samples would be analyzed at a state-certified laboratory. A soil and groundwater investigation report would be prepared that would include methods, results, conclusions, and recommendations. All the work would be overseen by a professional geologist or engineer whose signature would appear on the final report.

Breaking Up the Phase II Assessment Into Tasks

puzzleOne way to estimate the cost of work is to break it up into tasks, and then estimate the cost of each task. A Phase II soil and groundwater investigation can be broken into three main tasks:

  • preparation of a work plan,
  • fieldwork, and
  • reporting.

Estimate the Cost

With the tasks identified, we can estimate the cost. My knowledge and experience are important here, but a reference carries weight. The California Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund, a state program for underground storage tank owners and operators that funds investigation and cleanup, publishes cost recommendations (Guidelines). While these recommendations are associated with work on sites contaminated with gasoline and the like, they can be applied to assessment work for other compounds, such as the dry-cleaning chemicals my friend was worried about.

Work Plan

The work plan:

  • identifies known property conditions,
  • the potential contaminants and
  • suggests how best to take samples.

The Guidelines estimate the 2018 cost of a Phase II soil and groundwater investigation work plan at $3,380.

Adjusting for inflation, about 8.6% according to California Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation calculator, we have estimated the cost of a Phase II soil and groundwater work plan at $3,671. (Note – you can also adjust estimated costs to a particular area of California or to a national average.)

Field Work

For field work, we will consider the cost of drilling three holes to 30 feet as suggested in the Guidelines. In the description of work, the Guidelines include scheduling, coordination, field preparation, permitting and field work in the estimated cost for three holes. The Guidelines also include costs for equipment rental and supplies, a drilling contractor, chemical analyses, and subcontractor mark-up. Here the number of samples and methods of sampling that the Guidelines recommend differing slightly from the proposed work for my friend’s site. To address the differences, we will simply adjust the Guidelines cost by subtracting unnecessary costs.

sampleAs presented in the Guidelines, the total cost to drill three holes to 30 feet is $11,244, but after adjusting for the difference in the number of samples to be analyzed (9 for my friend versus 15 in the guidelines) and the number of analyses to be conducted (one for my friend versus two in the guidelines), the total cost for drilling three holes to 30 feet comes down to $8,308.

Field work also includes health and safety coordination and waste disposal. The Guidelines estimate the cost of a Community Health and Safety Plan at $1,392 and waste disposal at $145 per 55-gallon drum of soil waste. It is likely only one drum of waste will be generated during field work on my friend’s project.

Reporting

Regarding an assessment report, the Guidelines provide the cost for a report where six holes are drilled and three of the holes are converted to groundwater monitoring wells. It’s clear the scope of work linked to the Guidelines estimate is greater than for my friend; however, in my experience, the difference in terms of report preparation is small, in this case, less than $500. The Guidelines quote $6,944 for an investigation report – let’s say $6,500 for our report.

Something Left Out

Finally, is there anything we left out? For example, it’s likely the floor of the unit is concrete, and we will need a concrete driller to actually get underground. Additionally, now that we have holes in the floor, we will need to restore the floor by backfilling the holes and patching the surface. The Guidelines are not much help here, but in my experience, a concrete-cutting contractor is going to cost about $500 and the backfill and patch is going to cost about $900.

Now, what else did we miss? Something. To address this something, we use a contingency factor, say 10 percent. This additional 10 percent is to account for things we did not address or for unforeseen circumstances – like the concrete floor being 15 inches thick instead of the typical 6-to-8-inch thickness.

Estimated Cost

Now we are ready to sum up the costs. Between the work plan, field work, and the report, the total estimated cost (adjusted for inflation) is $22,946. With a 10% contingency the total cost ranges from $22,946 to $25,241. Now I was ready for a cup of coffee with my friend.

I arrived on time to find my friend seated at a window table. She looked up and noticed me, “Hi, great to see you”, she said. We received our coffee and spent what seemed like forever adding cream and sugar in silence. I spouted up, “Ready for the news?” She slumped, “Okay.”

I started with my explanation of how I got the estimate, but when I looked over, her glazed eyes told me to get on with it. “Alright, I estimated the cost for a Phase II soil and groundwater investigation at your location to be $25,000.” The glaze turned intense, “That’s a heck of a lot of money - why does it cost so much?” I thought for a moment and said, “Let’s look at the factors that drive cost.”

Factors That Drive Cost Up in a Phase II Assessment (Why Does it Cost So Much?)

There are several factors that drive the cost of a soil and groundwater investigation, but for me, two factors top the list: the type of contamination and site location.

Type of Contamination

The type of contamination can be broken down into the composition (what’s in it), the magnitude (how much is there), and the extent (how far has it spread).

Site Location

Site location includes things like where the site is located, how big it is and whether improvements have been done, the location of groundwater, site geology, local regulations, site use (residential or commercial); and how hard it is to properly dispose of waste from drilling.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these factors.

Factor That Drives Up Cost

How and Why the Factor Drives Cost

Kind of Contamination Hazardous contaminants, such as those that are toxic, require specialized personnel, equipment, and disposal that drive up costs.
Contamination Level Higher levels of contamination drive up waste disposal fees and require specialized methods, personnel, and equipment that cost more.
Contamination Area and Depth Larger areas and depths of contamination need more time to investigate and bring on more waste to dispose of, more samples to analyze, and more data to report.
Soil and Rock Very hard or dense ground requires special equipment for drilling and longer drilling times that drive up costs. The same is true for drilling in sandy or loose soil.
Groundwater Dealing with groundwater drives up costs and the depth of groundwater below the ground drives costs because greater depths require more drilling, more well construction time, and more waste disposal.

 

"Well, that sounds complicated," she said. “So you’re saying that if the groundwater was deeper at my place, a soil and groundwater investigation would cost more?” “Yes”, I said, “for one thing, the field investigation might take longer than it would otherwise, increasing the cost.”

“So it could be worse…” she said flatly.

We sat in silence for a moment and then I asked if she had any more questions. She sat up straight and said, “Probably, but thank you. I need to let this soak in.” “No problem”, I replied, “let me know if you need any more help with your project.” I let her know our firm was a one-stop-shop that could provide all the environmental-related services she would need to complete her project. I also told her we are very sensitive to the hardships, both financial and emotional, that environmental issues bring.

Understanding the Cost of a Phase II Environmental Assessment: Factors That Influence the Price

We covered a lot of ground here. Using cost guidelines from California’s Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund as a reference, we broke down how much it costs to complete a Phase II soil and groundwater investigation, including the work plan, field work, report, and a 10% contingency. We also looked at the two primary factors that make a Phase II assessment so expensive - the type of contamination and site location. 

Are you staring down the barrel of a Phase II Assessment, and don’t understand why? Are you having trouble juggling the competing demands of regulators and other stakeholders?  Let us help. We’ve got 20 years of experience solving problems just like this. Schedule a consultation by clicking the button below, or just give us a call at 831-475-8141.

An Inroduction to Vapor Intusion

We got a phone call from a concerned citizen. She was concerned because the county environmental health agency sent a letter stating vapor intrusion could be occurring at her property. “Before I talk to anybody at county health, I want to know what vapor intrusion is and what it means for my family,” she confessed. 

“If you have a moment, I’ll explain,” I said. “Let’s start with the vapor.”

The Vapor

Understanding Chemical Evaporation: Why Some Liquids Evaporate Faster than Others

vaporintrusion.jpgI’m sure you’ve seen gasoline evaporate off the pavement, or a bowl of water evaporate leaving salt rings behind. How about rubbing alcohol? You might have noticed how it quickly evaporates leaving your skin cold. When you think about it, you might have noticed how gasoline or rubbing alcohol evaporates much faster than water. What’s going on?

When a liquid chemical evaporates, it turns from a liquid into a vapor or gas. All liquid chemicals evaporate to some extent, and the extent to which a chemical liquid evaporates shows its volatility. The more volatile a chemical liquid is, the greater the tendency it has to generate vapor. Gasoline has a greater tendency to turn into vapor than water, that’s why gasoline evaporates off the driveway faster than water, and that’s why gasoline is more volatile than water.

The Intrusion

The Risks of Vapor Intrusion: How Chemicals from Leaked Liquids Can Enter Buildings

When a liquid chemical leaks into the ground, it enters the soil and groundwater. Once in groundwater, the chemical has the potential to move along with the groundwater. As this process unfolds, and depending on its volatility, some of the released chemical turns into a vapor and enters the space of dry soil between the groundwater surface and the ground surface. At the ground surface, the vapor can enter buildings causing a buildup of chemical vapors. 

Vapors primarily enter through openings in the building foundation or basement walls such as cracks in the concrete slab, gaps around utility lines, and sumps. It also is possible for vapors to pass through concrete, which is naturally porous. In their vapor form, contaminants like gasoline, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be inhaled, thereby posing immediate or long-term health risks.

What is Vapor Intrusion?

After explaining what vapor is and what intrusion is all about, we got back to the subject of the county's letter. I explained, “The letter is warning you that a groundwater plume contaminated with PCE may have moved under your property and the PCE vapor from the plume may be causing a vapor intrusion health risk.”

“The letter goes on to request you contact the county office so they can arrange sampling soil vapor at your property and determine if there is a health risk,”  I finished.

“So what if they find contaminated vapor beneath my property?” she asked.

I told her it depends on the level of contamination. At low levels, only monitoring may be necessary to show vapor intrusion is not a threat over time.  At moderate to high levels, contaminant cleanup and/or mitigation might be required to eliminate a vapor intrusion health risk.

“I have one more question,” she said. “Who’s going to pay for all this? It wasn’t our fault the contaminated groundwater moved under our property.”

I sympathized and explained that there are various grant and funding programs in California for this situation. “I am sure that if the county finds contamination, they will look to those responsible for the contamination, and if they can’t find those responsible, they will use the appropriate funding mechanisms available from the state.”

What is the definition of vapor intrusion?

Vapor intrusion refers to the migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated soil or groundwater into the indoor air of buildings. This can occur when chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or radon gas migrate through the soil and into buildings through cracks in foundations, basement floors, or walls.

Protecting Yourself from Vapor Intrusion: Tips and Solutions

We looked at what vapor intrusion is and how it could affect anyone near a contaminant release, even if the release didn’t happen on your property. The next question is how to protect yourself from vapor intrusion. Check this space for some answers.

We have over 30 years of experience dealing with problems like vapor intrusion, cleanup, and mitigation. If you have similar issues, we may be able to help. Click on the button below for a free consultation and learn more about what we can do to help.

What is Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP)

We have a client who was the operator of a dry cleaner. Before he retired, he had already faced the consequences of being the responsible party for tetrachloroethylene (PCE) release from his operation. He did what was required by the local oversight agency and received a closure letter.

Our client had been retired for some time, living on a fixed income, when he got a letter from the local oversight agency he had dealt with while in business. The letter said that an investigation down the street from his former dry cleaning business found PCE, and they pointed the finger at the retiree. He replied with the truth; “I don’t have the money.”

That didn’t stop the oversight agency. The next letter told our client to apply for a SCAP grant. The regulator was referring to the Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP) run by the California State Water Resources Control Board (Board). Of course, our client had no idea what SCAP was and called with a host of questions.

What is Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP)?

SCAP is a funding program established by California Senate Bill (SB) 445, allowing the Board to issue grants for the cleanup of surface water or groundwater contaminated with human-made chemicals that harm, or threaten to harm, human health and the environment (e.g., fish, animals).

Who is a SCAP Grant For?

An applicant must meet three conditions to be eligible for a SCAP grant:

  1. The applicant must have a site with surface water or groundwater contaminated by human-made chemicals.
  2. The contamination harms or threatens to harm human health and the environment.
  3. The site is under regulatory oversight for cleanup.

SCAP grants are awarded to responsible parties (those named by the Board as responsible for a release), public agencies, public utilities, non-profit organizations, tribes, and mutual water companies. The grant applicant(s) must show they lack sufficient financial resources to perform the required work. This means the applicant must provide certain financial records. For example:

  • Individuals – individual income tax returns for the most recent three years.
  • Businesses – business income tax returns for the most recent three years; Secretary of State documentation identifying the business and authorized signatories.
  • Trusts – income tax returns of the trust and trust documents
  • Limited Liability Corporations (LLC) – income tax returns of the LLC and identification of the partners who receive income from the LLC.

In addition to financial information, the Board also asks for a scope of work, cost estimate, and duration of the proposed project. 

The financial information, project budget, and project duration are used to make a preliminary determination of the ability of the applicant to pay for the project. The Board uses The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Penalties and Financial Model to estimate the applicant's available cash flow for the duration of the project.

Aerial view of the levee improvements at the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal, formerly known as Steelhead Creek, which flows into the American River in Sacramento County, California. By 2013, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) and the state completed 18.3 of the 42 miles of levee improvements required to meet current flood control standards. The Natomas Basin is surrounded by 42 miles of levees that provide protection from the American River, Sacramento River, Natomas Cross Canal and Natomas East Main Drain Canal. Photo taken October 24, 2013.Paul Hames / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

What Cleanup Projects are Eligible for a SCAP Grant?

Cleanup projects are eligible when they:

  • Provide cleanup to remove the harm or threat of harm to human health and the environment;
  • Are not eligible for other Division of Financial Assistance funding programs; and
  • Emphasize cleanup.

What are the Factors for Consideration for Awarding a SCAP Grant?

SCAP requires the Board to weigh the following considerations for awarding a grant:

  1. The level of threat to human health, safety, and the environment from surface water or groundwater contamination at the location.
  2. Whether the location is in a small or financially disadvantaged community.
  3. The cost and potential environmental benefit of the investigation or cleanup.
  4. Whether there are other potential sources of funding for the investigation or cleanup. 
  5. Any other information the Board identifies as necessary for consideration.

There is no other guidance provided by the Board regarding how the five considerations are appraised, but there is a list of sites that received a SCAP grant. We took a sample of those sites, reviewed site characteristics as they relate to the five considerations, and summarized our findings as five rules of thumb.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 1

Rule of Thumb 1 - The location of a contaminated site poses an immediate or imminent threat to human health, safety, and the environment (aquatic and terrestrial); or the site has significantly high PCE and TCE concentrations (>100,000 ug/m3) in soil vapor that pose an immediate threat or strong potential threat to human health, safety, and environment.

To get information for the sample sites, we reviewed case files uploaded to GeoTracker, the Board’s database of contaminated sites. Dry cleaners topped the list recently of awarded grants with at least 10 grants from a total thirteen sites awarded SCAP grants. One site was designated as a “Brownfield” site. While SCAP is not exclusively for dry cleaners, the list of awarded grants leans heavily in that direction. For the sites we reviewed, contaminants of concern were mostly long-lasting compounds such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MtBE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and trichloroethylene (TCE).

There were a few sites where petroleum hydrocarbons (gasoline and diesel) were the contaminants of concern, and while the impact did not cause immediate threat (ongoing exposure to contamination), it did leave the sites with an imminent threat (strong potential for exposure) to human health and the environment. In one case involving petroleum hydrocarbons, the location of the impact threatened surface water and levy construction that if left undone would have caused an immediate threat to human health, safety, and the environment due to flooding.

In the case of MtBE, contaminant levels in groundwater were moderate, but the Board suspected that MtBE-impacted groundwater infiltrated an unused water supply well that connected upper water zones to deeper water zones. MtBE-contaminated water moving from shallow to deeper zones was considered an imminent threat to human health and safety. 

For most of the sites we reviewed, groundwater was impacted by PCE and TCE, but it was the concentrations in soil vapor that created a threat  to human health. In these cases, PCE concentrations in soil vapor easily exceeded 100,000 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). For perspective, the Tier 2 commercial environmental screening level (ESL) published by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board for PCE in subsurface vapor is 67 ug/m3. In some cases there was vapor intrusion into occupied spaces (immediate threat), and in other cases there was imminent threat of vapor intrusion. In all the solvent cases reviewed there was either an immediate or imminent threat based on exceedingly high PCE and TCE concentrations in soil vapor beneath occupied buildings.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 2

Rule of Thumb 2 - The location is disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution and with population characteristics that make them more sensitive to pollution.

Over half the sites reviewed were categorized as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged, a term used for water management and other public agency planning. The designation stems from digital map screening tools that help identify communities unequally challenged by multiple sources of pollution and with population characteristics that make them more sensitive to pollution. This information is available for sites on GeoTracker and is found under the” Community Involvement” tab on a site’s index page.

For sites that were not listed as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged, it was unclear how this consideration was factored into the decision to award a SCAP grant; however, that does not mean the sites were not in a small or financially disadvantaged community.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 3

Rule of Thumb 3 - The scope of work, duration, and cost of investigation and/or cleanup is reasonable and necessary to fix an immediate or imminent threat to human health, safety, and the environment.

This factor was difficult to discern from the available information. For all the sites reviewed, there was a lack of funds available to meet the regulatory directive and applicants had provided financial information, project scope of work, project duration, and project cost.

While the financial and project information were not available for our review, it was clear for most of the sites that contamination level or the location posed an immediate or imminent threat to human health (e.g, vapor intrusion), safety (e.g, risk of flooding), and the environment (e.g., poison fish). Since the environmental threat was immediate or imminent, action was necessary. SInce removing the immediate or imminent threat is beneficial and the cost is approved by the Board, the cost is reasonable.

Sites reviewed with SCAP grants had a scope of work, duration, and cost estimate that were necessary and reasonable to fix immediate or imminent threat to public health.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 4

Rule of Thumb 4 - Applicants must show there is no other funding available to meet regulatory directives by providing financial information along with the project scope, duration, and cost estimate for investigation and/or cleanup. 

SCAP applicants were awarded grants because they showed there were no other sources of funding, including their own resources, to meet a regulatory agency directive. They showed there were no other sources of funding by providing financial information along with the project scope, duration, and cost estimate for investigation and/or cleanup. There is no broad consideration for this factor. A financial model is used by the Board as part of the assessment process. 

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 5

Rule of Thumb 5 - Applicants should engage in routine communication with SCAP and respond quickly and accurately to information requests.

Obviously, it’s hard to know on a site-by-site basis what other information the Board might consider in its deliberations. In some cases regulators make recommendations for a grant based on data not previously considered by the Board. The Board recommends routine communication and responding quickly and accurately to information requests.

Am I Eligible for a SCAP Grant

We looked at who a SCAP grant is for, what projects are eligible for a grant, and the five considerations weighed for awarding a grant. We have the experience to be your partner in the SCAP process. If you are interested in SCAP, contact us for a free consultation.

Protecting Your Well from Contamination: Essential Tips and Strategies

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What to do if your well is near a site where contamination was recently discovered

“I just received an alarming letter from my county environmental health department that our property well is near a site where contamination was recently discovered. Our well is our primary source for drinking water. What do we do? Should we be worried?”

First, try not to panic. We realize this can be concerning news, especially when the letter does not provide helpful information, or the language is overly technical and hard to understand. In most cases, private, domestic wells that serve a residential property are often installed to depths much deeper than the source of contamination and draw from a different underground water source (aquifer). To better understand this concept, which can feel abstract since we can’t see underground, let’s look at the graphic below which illustrates what this scenario might look like.

well depthsAn aquitard is a layer of bedrock or other impermeable material that separates different aquifer zones. In most cases, an aquitard will prevent mixing between shallow and deeper aquifers. If the contamination affects the shallow aquifer, and a nearby well is drawing from a deeper aquifer, it’s not likely the same contamination will be found in the deeper aquifer because it’s separated by the barrier of the aquitard.

This graphic is only a generalized view, but it can put into perspective what might be the case for your well. To understand the situation more fully and what it means for your water source, you’ll want to review the installation records for your well. Once you have that information, you can compare your well with the depth of the contamination that was discovered. If you don’t have information on your well and don’t know the depth, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) may have a record of your well in their database. It is state law that geologic logs and pertinent information on all wells drilled in California be provided to DWR.

Next Steps if Your Well is Contaminated

Here are Your Next Steps:

  1. Find your well information and review the design specifics.
  2. Prepare a list of questions - here are some suggestions:
    • Should we stop drinking our water until it can be tested?
    • How did you determine this contamination is a threat to our water source?
    • Who will pay for testing?
    • Who is the consultant hired to mitigate the contaminated property?
    • How can I get records and status updates on the cleanup?
  3. Call the person at the environmental health department who sent the letter for more information.
  4. Call an environmental cleanup agency or consultant for an independent assessment of the situation.

What if the site has been identified as a source of contamination

When a site has been identified as a source of contamination, one of the first requirements from the oversight agency handling the case is to conduct a well survey, which is a tool to identify all the wells within a given radius from the source (usually ½ mile). The caseworker will analyze the survey and identify which wells could be affected by the contamination based on their construction and the distance from the source. The next step is usually obtaining permission from the well owners who could be affected to test the water from their well. 

Right now we are consulting for a property owner who had a small farm in the family. Underground storage tanks (USTs) were used at the farm for fueling equipment and vehicles. Although the USTs were removed in the 1980s, they leaked, and fuel was released into the surrounding soil and groundwater. A neighbor who lives in a house next door draws water from a private well on their property and is within proximity to the source of contamination. Although their well is constructed to draw water from a deep zone at 300 feet, their well has a screen that extends through the shallower aquifer where contaminants have been discovered in groundwater samples. We’ve tested samples from the well at least twice per year since 2007, and none of those samples showed traces of contaminants. It is the responsibility of the land owner or responsible person of the contaminated site to provide for testing, and relay the results to the well owner.

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It can be daunting to receive a letter with such alarming news, but arming yourself with information and asking the right questions will go a long way toward helping you feel safe about the integrity of your water. We have over 40 years of experience dealing with government agencies and cleaning up environmental messes - we can help you. Give us a call at (831) 475-8141 or click the link below for a free consultation.

Understanding Phase I ESAs for Real Estate Buyers

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"You know what a lemon car is, right? Nobody wants one. Nobody wants contaminated property either."

Why do Real Estate Buyers need a Phase I ESA?

In the simplest terms, the point of a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) is to protect a prospective property buyer from getting a lemon of a property. You know what a lemon car is, right? Nobody wants one. Nobody wants contaminated property either. A Phase I ESA is designed to inform the buyer of what they’re getting into while providing liability protection.

How do Phase I ESAs Protect Real Estate Buyers?

The Valley of the Drums is a 23-acre (9.3 hectare) toxic waste site near Brooks in northern Bullitt County, Kentucky, near Louisville, named after the waste-containing drums strewn across the area.

It starts with Superfund. The word Superfund probably brings up images of pretty meadows filled with garbage and pipes dumping fluorescent green sludge from a nearby factory into a pristine river. You wouldn’t be far off the mark, unfortunately. Take a look at the Valley of the Drums, a Superfund site in Brooks, Kentucky that has been undergoing cleanup since the 1970s.

Superfund was formed when people started taking issue with the environment getting trashed with contamination nobody wanted to take responsibility for. In response, the EPA formed the Superfund in 1980, which is basically a “super” pool of “funds” the EPA uses to clean up abandoned toxic waste dumps. The money comes from taxes levied on the folks who make these nasty chemicals, including the petroleum industry. Soon after the Superfund was formed, the EPA gave it a fancier name: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), officially enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980.

CERCLA lives up to its name in that it is very comprehensive and, let’s be honest, is a very long code of legalese nobody reads unless they absolutely must. With that said, there are some powerful protections under CERCLA for buyers and developers of commercial real estate people. These laws are known as “landowner liability protections” or LLPs. Without boring you with what this means as defined under CERCLA, the easiest way to understand it is, if you, the buyer, get a Phase I ESA that is done properly, you won’t be on the hook for any environmental issues that might be discovered after you purchase the property. 

What is a Proper Phase ESA and Why is it Important to Do it Properly?

I’m betting your next question is, what do you mean by “done properly”?

After CERCLA established these protections for landowners, they had to come up with a standardized set of rules that every person who is seeking this protection must follow. This set of rules, as you’ve probably guessed, is what we call the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment.

To standardize the steps of a Phase I ESA, CERCLA people met with people from The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), one of the world’s most respected standards development organizations, to create a set of standards in conducting a Phase I ESA. ASTM develops standards for more than 150 global industries, from the quality of building materials supporting a skyscraper to the standards in the production of the ceramic mug you drink your coffee from. 

ASTM developed the Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process ASTM E1527-21. It’s a 60-page document outlining the steps to complete a Phase I ESA and the rules that must be followed to ensure the process is done to the standards, and thus, be a legally binding document recognized by CERCLA. The Standard is updated every five years or so. If you’re willing to part with $85 to take a closer look at the Standard, it can be purchased on ASTM’s website: https://www.astm.org/e1527-21.html.

*Note that purchasing the Standard isn’t a requirement for prospective buyers; it’s mostly used by the environmental professional who is preparing a Phase I ESA for a client.

Why Hire Us for Your Phase I ESA?

If you hire us to do a Phase I ESA, rest assured we follow ASTM E1527-21 to the letter. We’ve carefully read every line of this Standard and we have over 40 combined years of experience in conducting these investigations. Don’t buy a lemon. Get a Phase I ESA and feel confident in your choice to protect your future investment. 

Do you have more questions about a Phase I ESA? Check out our Phase I Reading Guide here. Or sign up for a free consultation by clicking this link:

Understanding Low-Threat Solvent Case Closure for PCE Contamination in California

What is Low-Threat Closure & PCE Solvent Closure in California

For many of those managing investigation and cleanup of property contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and other solvents in California, low-threat solvent case closure is the best but least understood option. This lack of clarity leads to frustration and mistrust. Let’s get familiar with low-threat solvent case closure and develop some general criteria beginning with the cleanup goal.

PCE Case Closure and Cleanup Goals: Reasonable Timeframe and Criteria

California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) policy does not require that contamination is completely gone at the time of case closure; it specifies compliance with cleanup goals and objectives within a reasonable timeframe. This means that case closure can occur with contamination left in place as long as cleanup goals, such as relevant environmental screening levels (ESLs) or maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), are met in a reasonable timeframe. What defines a reasonable timeframe is ultimately decided by the regulatory oversight agency, but the decision considers the pace of natural cleanup mechanisms such as biodegradation. SWRCB closure orders for low-threat petroleum hydrocarbon sites state a reasonable time frame for plumes of a limited extent is multiple decades or longer, but expect more restrictions because PCE is less susceptible to natural cleanup mechanisms and has much lower ESLs. The general criteria for achieving cleanup goals are:

Criteria: Establish that natural mechanisms can reduce levels to cleanup goals and that contamination levels are at a point where natural mechanisms can reduce levels within a reasonable time frame.

Environmental Investigation Requirements: How Much Is Needed?

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“It seems like the regulator has the power to keep asking for more and more with no end in sight. I’m frustrated! Where does this all end?”

I could see my client was ready to blow up. The oversight regulator had just looked up from a figure she was contemplating and said, “Maybe we need some more samples in this area,” pointing to a small patch of the map that already had two sample locations. “There may be contamination extending beyond those sample locations.”

It was true that there may be more contamination beyond the boundary set by the sample locations, but we argued there was enough data to draw a boundary around most of the contamination and adequately characterize the extent of the contamination.

“Well I’m not sure,” said the regulator, “I’ll have to check with my supervisor.”

As we entered the elevator for a trip down to the lobby, my client let out a giant sigh, “Are you kidding me - when’s enough enough?”

“Last time she said we should be able to wrap up the investigation with the latest data - now this,” my client bemoaned. “I know you told me, but what exactly are they looking for?”

“Let’s go for a cup of coffee and I’ll try to explain.”

Guiding Policy: Understanding California Regulatory Policy for Environmental Investigation and Cleanup

We took some time to flavor our coffee and regroup from the meeting in silence. I began, “I am really sorry about this situation and I totally understand your frustration.”

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