“What is a Soil Gas Sample?”
It’s a good question. It’s part of a string of questions most of us are familiar with - the what, why, who, when, where, and how of something. Let’s check the list.
A soil gas sample is what you get when you remove a small portion of gas inside soil and hold it in a container for testing. Underground soil is like a sponge in that it has empty spaces. Between the surface of the ground and underground water (groundwater), these soil spaces are filled with gas and water. The gas is mostly air, but it can also have gaseous contamination from underground spills of chemicals such as gasoline and cleaning solvents (tetrachloroethylene or PCE). The soil gas may also have by-products of chemical spills like the vinyl chloride that comes from the breakdown of PCE.
Soil gas is sampled to see if there are any harmful gasses that are either naturally occurring or the result of a spill. The samples are usually analyzed at a State-certified lab to find out what chemicals are in the soil gas sample and what the levels are. There are several reasons to collect a soil gas sample.
One reason is to find out if there is a risk to human health and the environment. To check for risk, chemical levels detected at the lab are typically compared to levels judged to be safe by the regulatory community. These levels, sometimes called environmental screening levels (ESLs), are considered safe when they do not pose a potential risk to public health and the environment.
Another reason to collect soil gas samples is to find out where contamination is and where chemical levels are highest. A map showing where chemicals are found and at what levels they are found can provide a good idea of the area of contamination and highlight areas with higher levels. This can help to steer property development plans and keep people away from potentially harmful areas. This information can also significantly lower investigation costs by showing where soil and groundwater sampling should be targeted.
In the case of known underground contamination, soil gas samples may be collected over a period of time to monitor the change in chemical levels. A change that shows a decrease in chemical levels is necessary for environmental case closure.
Sometimes the reason for soil gas sampling is to just find out whether there is underground contamination. For example, a property owner may have soil gas samples collected along a property boundary shared with a dry cleaning business to find out if contamination from the dry cleaner moved beyond the dry cleaner’s property line.
Usually, an environmental consultant or environmental oversight agency proposes collection of soil gas samples. As mentioned above, the reasons are to find out what chemicals are in the soil gas, what the levels are, and where the chemicals are located.
In most cases, personnel trained in soil gas sampling collect soil gas samples. Sampling goals and how the sampling will be done are typically spelled out in a work plan that is approved by a regulatory agency prior to samping.
Soil gas samples are collected in areas of known or suspected underground contamination. Once the soil gas samples are collected, they are taken to a laboratory for chemical testing. In some cases, an on-site field laboratory is used to analyze samples.
In the field, soil gas sample containers are labeled with the sampling location, time the sample was collected, and a sample identification number. After labeling, samples are placed in a sealed container and transported to a state-certified laboratory for analyses.
A chain of custody is prepared at the point of sample collection and it travels with the samples to the laboratory. The chain of custody contains contact information, a list of the samples collected, and other important information. It is a clear line of responsibility from the sample location to the laboratory.
Soil gas samples can be collected at any time, but it is suggested that samples not be collected within 5 days of a good rainfall. Policy makers suggest that after you know where the soil gas contamination is, you should take samples twice per year to show levels during rainy and dry seasons. Once at the lab, it usually takes about two weeks to get the results. Of course, if you are willing to pay more, sample testing can be “rushed”.
Soil gas samples are collected from wells installed to at least 5 feet underground or from sample points that allow access to soil just underneath a concrete floor. In most cases samples are collected using a stainless steel canister that is supplied by a laboratory. The canister is delivered sealed and under a vacuum. During sampling, the canister is attached to a manifold that connects the canister to the well or sample point. The manifold is also equipped with pressure gauges, a filter, and a flow limiter that controls the flow of soil gas into the sample container to maintain sample quality. Sample collection stops when the canister pressure gauge shows the canister is nearly filled.
We answered the five Ws and a H for a soil gas sample. There are plenty of questions to ask about soil gas, contamination, and exposure at our homes and workplaces. We are here to help answer those questions and provide related services such as soil gas sampling and vapor intrusion mitigation system design, installation, and monitoring.
If you have any other questions about soil gas, or need help with another environmental question, please call us or click the button below for a free consultation. We’ve been helping folks for 35 years and we know what we are doing.
"Why does it cost so much for a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment?" This is the most common question from prospective clients seeking this type of service. After all, the product is simply a large document outlining the detailed history of the property. How difficult is that?
First, understand that all Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) must be conducted using the guidelines in the American Society of Testing & Materials (ASTM) Standard for Phase I ESAs. Following the ASTM standard assures protection from environmental damage caused by previous property owners.
Okay - so why does it cost so much? Let’s start with what it takes to prepare a Phase I site assessment according to the ASTM standard.
The preparation of a Phase I ESA can be broken down into the following steps:
Time to Complete
1) Initial property evaluation
1 - 3
2) Government data request
3) Local records request and file review
2 - 6
4) Data review and client communication
1 - 2
5) Government records review
6) Historical records review
8 - 12
7) Interviews with persons knowledgeable of property history
1 - 2
8) Property inspection
2 - 8
9) Report preparation
10 - 16
10) Report review and submittal
1 - 3
40 - 70
A large amount of time is spent on conducting a thorough investigation into the current and historical uses of the property under review. This is done by reviewing governmental and historical records. As seen in the table above - this takes up to 28 hours.
Many Phase I providers turn to Environmental Data Resources (EDR), a company that tailors their products to comply with the ASTM Standard. EDR searches hundreds of federal, state, local, and tribal databases using the property as the focal point. An EDR database package for Phase I costs about $375.
Local governmental agencies are also contacted for records related to the property under review. These agencies can include local fire departments, environmental health agencies, building departments, and tax assessors (for verifying property characteristics). Some agencies have their files available online, others will copy requested files and mail a CD, and others require an in-person visit to their office to review the files.
Historical records such as air photos, street directories, topographic maps, and fire insurance maps (Sanborns Maps) are also reviewed to provide information on past uses of the subject property. For example, if the local governmental agencies have no records of any USTs being used at the property, but an air photo from 1949 shows a gas station canopy on the property, then we’ll cross-check the historical street directories to see if a gas station existed at the property during this year.
Along with records review, interviews are conducted, the site is inspected, and a report of findings is prepared - according to the table estimate, up to 29 hours of work.
Completing a Phase I ESA can take at least 40 hours, with the average being around 52 hours. We quote most of our Phase I ESA projects between $4,200 and $5,500,on a fixed fee basis.
To meet the ASTM Phase I standard, an Environmental Professional must conduct, or be responsible for conducting a Phase I ESA. The EP and staff must have sufficient education, training, and experience to conduct a Phase I ESA, and that drives cost.
The cost of an EDR report is fixed at a low price because it is primarily a computer-generated database dump. On the other hand, the EP and their staff sift through the EDR report, inspect the site, conduct interviews, and review historical information. They gather all the relevant information and summarize it in a Phase I report that includes conclusions and recommendations. It is these recommendations and conclusions that commercial real estate transactions depend upon. That is what drives the cost far above the cost of an EDR report.
Our Phase I ESA preparers are well-qualified, with over 30 years of experience in the industry. We are here to answer your questions, and our initial consultation is always free. Click the button below to schedule a consultation or call us today at (831) 475-8141.
An attorney we work with asked me to look at a phase I environmental site assessment (ESA) for his client. His client was really interested in the property, which already had a solid lease.
The ESA disclosed a historically recognized environmental concern (HREC) and a recognized environmental concern (REC). Both had to do with a release of gasoline from a former underground storage tank (UST) at the property. The property had environmental case closure with very low levels of gasoline contamination left in place.
The question posed by the attorney’s client boiled down to the Phase I recommendation - “Complete a Vapor Intrusion Assessment and Prepare a Soil Management Plan”.
“Is this necessary?” the client asked.
I told them that the recommendation was very conservative based on the information provided by the ESA. I let them know that if they planned to redevelop the property, the county would probably look to them to voluntarily investigate for vapor intrusion and prepare a soil management plan as part of the redevelopment.
I advised that the recommendation was overly conservative given their intention to hold the property as is. I also told them that it was unlikely a vapor intrusion assessment would disclose a vapor intrusion problem.
As we were wrapping up, a question came up, “What is a vapor intrusion assessment?”
I started my answer with an explanation of vapor intrusion.
As a liquid chemical evaporates, it turns from a liquid into a vapor or gas. All liquids evaporate to some extent, and the extent to which a liquid evaporates shows its volatility. The more volatile a liquid is, the more quickly it turns into vapor.
When a liquid chemical leaks into the ground, it enters the soil and groundwater. Once in groundwater, the chemical moves along with the groundwater. As this process unfolds, and depending on its volatility, some of the released chemicals turn into a vapor and enter the space of dry soil above the groundwater. The vapor can leak up through the ground and enter a building causing a buildup of chemical vapors in the building. This process is vapor intrusion.
As time goes on, groundwater carries the dissolved chemical downstream from the chemical release. At the same time, a vapor plume (just like the billowing smoke that forms above a smokestack) forms in the soil above the affected groundwater. The area of the vapor plume mirrors the area of chemically-affected soil and groundwater.
A vapor intrusion assessment uses the link between the vapor plume and affected soil and groundwater to confirm whether there is contaminated soil and/or groundwater in an area and to determine whether any detected contamination poses a human health risk due to vapor intrusion.
In practice, a vapor intrusion assessment involves collecting soil vapor samples from small wells spread across the area you are investigating, and testing the soil vapor samples for suspected contaminants.
Typically, detected contamination levels in soil vapor are used to estimate how much area is contaminated, identify areas of high contamination or “hot-spots”, and gauge potential human health risks by comparing detected levels with published environmental screening levels (ESLs).
A vapor intrusion assessment has some real advantages over the more traditional phase II soil and groundwater assessment for figuring out where soil and groundwater contamination is, where the highest levels of contamination are, and whether soil vapor intrusion poses a human health risk.
Number one, a soil vapor assessment costs much less than a soil and groundwater assessment, generates less waste, is less intrusive, and provides information that can be used to target a groundwater and soil investigation, and possible cleanup. Additionally, a soil vapor assessment can be used to examine vapor intrusion health risks.
Of course, a soil vapor assessment does not provide all the information a soil and groundwater investigation can, but it gets you well down the road and allows more efficient and cost-effective phases of investigation and cleanup.
Our recommendation: Before drilling for soil and groundwater samples, use a soil vapor assessment to get a valuable overview.
In this article, we took a look at soil vapor intrusion, explained what a soil vapor assessment is, and described some of the advantages a soil vapor assessment has over a traditional phase II soil and groundwater investigation.
If you have a Phase I ESA that recommends verifying an HREC or REC, go ahead and get a second opinion, and if necessary, consider using a soil vapor assessment to confirm the ESA recommendation. With over 30 years of experience in conducting soil vapor assessments and reaping their advantages, we can help. Please call us at 831-475-8141 or click below to schedule a free consultation.
You’re reading this because you are looking for an honest and reliable environmental consultant who will save you money, give you the answers you need, and provide reassurance. When confronted with an environmental issue, one of the most important questions you’ll have is, who are the best consultants in my area?
RRM wants to help prospective clients find the best company to meet their needs. We’ve been in business since 1992 providing cost-effective solutions to environmental challenges, and we understand the necessity for exploring other options. We compiled a list of local companies to help you narrow your search.
Located in Watsonville, WHA has been providing environmental and geotechnical services since 1988. They have extensive experience providing services to the agricultural industry, including guidance on stormwater conveyance and detention, and waste discharge for composting operations.
This company operates from Monterey and offers a wide range of environmental testing and inspection services in areas such as industrial hygiene, building science, and specialty construction. Their industrial hygienist provides consulting in indoor air quality testing, indoor environmental services, and environmental analysis.
Established in 2005, Trinity is located in downtown Santa Cruz. They offer a broad range of environmental consulting, management, and construction services with a turnkey approach to environmental challenges. This includes providing drilling services in addition to environmental services.
Based in Los Gatos, RHE offers a full range of professional and technical services for the investigation, remediation, and management of difficult environmental conditions. They are great at helping people understand tricky compliance situations.
While cost is always one of the first topics you might discuss, you might also want to hear about their experience in dealing with your particular problem, about their relationship with the relevant county and state agencies involved, project timing, and what potential contract arrangements look like.
We hope this post has provided you with information that helps you make the best choice. No matter which consultant you choose, we are here to answer any questions. Click the button below to schedule a free consultation or call us today at (831) 475-8141.
“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) 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?”
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
One 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:
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.
The work plan:
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.)
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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
I’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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
An applicant must meet three conditions to be eligible for a SCAP grant:
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:
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.
Cleanup projects are eligible when they:
SCAP requires the Board to weigh the following considerations for awarding a grant:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
An 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.
Here are Your Next Steps:
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.
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.
"You know what a lemon car is, right? Nobody wants one. Nobody wants contaminated property either."
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.
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.
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.
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: