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Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) in California

Performing Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) in California is a little different than other states.   The golden state has lived up to its name in the world of real estate as real estate investors have done quite well in the past 50 years.    Arguably one reason for real estate appreciation is that real estate in California is supply restricted and environmental regulation is one of many causes for the supply restrictions.

When selecting and environmental consulting firm to perform your Phase I Environmental Site Assessment in California, you should either choose a California firm or at least a non-California firm that is intimately familiar with CA regulations.   Here are five reasons why:

1)      Registered Environmental Professional

California is one of the only states that register environmental professionals.   ASTM E1527-05 requires that an environmental professional perform the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment; therefore, a quality sensitive client will ask if their CA environmental consultant is a Registered Environmental Assessor (REA).

2)      Regional Water Quality Control Boards

In most states the regulations are statewide rules with maybe some variations for cities and counties.   In California, the State Water Board grants a lot of power and autonomy to the Regional Water Quality Control Boards.  The regional water boards are organized generally by watershed and may split counties.   Water boards may have very different regulations.  For example, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board developed Environmental Screening Levels (ESLs) for soil and groundwater contamination, whereas the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board uses different screening levels including Soil Screening Levels, CHHSLs for soil-gas (see below), and Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for groundwater.

3)      CHHSLs

The California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the California Human Health Screening Levels (CHHSLs) in 2005.  The CHHSLs provide the user with a chemical specific look up table for what levels of soil gas or indoor air concentrations represent a threat to human health.   CHHSLs are not intended to be regulatory numbers, but are often treated as such.  CHHSLs are also famously conservative.   You need an environmental consultant doing your Phase I ESA that knows how to interpret soil gas and indoor air data in relation to CHHSLs and this requires a lot of California experience.

4)      CUPAs

Certified Unified Program Agency (CUPAs) have a lot of power in California.   CUPA are city or county agencies that have been more or less deputized to handle certain regulatory functions.  An example of a CUPA is the City of Los Angeles Fire Department, which oversees releases from underground storage tanks (USTs), termed leaking USTs or LUSTs.  To do proper regulatory due diligence during a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment your environmental professional must understand the California CUPAs.

5)      CEQA

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is California’s equivalent of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).   A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment sometimes has to deal with CEQA/NEPA issues like wetlands, endangered species, and/or historical resources as additional scope items.

The above issues are really statewide issue.   Some of California’s largest cities and counties have unique regulations too, and you can really get some complex jurisdictional issues.

A contaminated site in Los Angeles County could be regulated by the following agencies:  a city fire department (CUPA); the LA County Department of Public Works (LACDPW); the LA County Fire Department, Health Hazardous Materials Division (CUPA); the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board; or the Department of Toxic Substance Controls (DTSC).  In some instances a site might start with one agency and then move to another.   There is a rhyme and reason to which agency oversees a release, but it is complicated and depends on factors including the site location, type of contamination, type of impact (soil vs. groundwater), and human health risks.  These regulatory challenges are primary in a site mitigation practice, but are still relevant in the practice of Phase I Environmental Site Assessments.

In the Bay Area and Northern California there are three regional water boards to be familiar with:  San Francisco (the main district covering the nine Bay Area counties), North Coastal, and Central Coastal water boards.   These three water boards are sometimes referred to as the TriRegional Water Boards.   There are many local CUPAs including the City and County of San Francisco Public Health Department, San Mateo County Environmental Health, Santa Clara County Environmental Health, Alameda County Environmental Health, Marin County Department of Public Works, Sonoma County Office of Emergency Services, Napa County Department of Environmental Management, Contra Costa County Health Services Department, and Solano County Environmental Health Department.  Larger cities within these counties such as Oakland, Santa Rosa, the City of Santa Clara, and Fremont have fire departments that act as the local CUPAs.

In the central valley of California (Fresno, Tulare, Modesto, Madera) the environmental professional needs to be familiar with agricultural issues such as current and historical pesticide use, or diesel/gasoline storage tanks for fueling farm equipment.

The practice of Phase I ESAs in the CA Sierra Mountains requires another skill set and scope of work.  My firm has done a lot of Bureau of Land Management work and Phase I ESAs on ski resorts.    These large parcel Phase I ESA are done to the standard ASTM E2247-08 for Forestland or Rural Property.


In closing, the practice of Phase I Environmental Site Assessments in California is as challenging as it is in any state.   Real estate professionals are wise to find a California environmental professional with local knowledge and expertise.