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Level 2 or Phase 2

Environmental Site Assessment


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While putting in a new power service on your property, you find a large, oily smelling, mostly empty, underground tank - who gets your call? (click on the box below with your answer)

whom to call? - your lawyer? whom to call - your state dept of environment? whom to call - local backhoe operator? whom to call - eco services? should you call local health? should you call the police about the problem?


A level 2 environmental assessment is almost always invasive using heavy equipment or core drills to sample soil at various depths What is a level 2 environmental site assessment?

The term "Level 2" is not really a legal or technical term, but it is commonly used to identify a report that usually contains the analysis of soil or water samples by a qualified laboratory for the concentration of known hazardous substances. The "level" of the assessment will depend somewhat on the ability of the local environment to absorb or mitigate problems on its own. More commonly the state government has published "guidelines" or "rules" defining the legal maximum contaminant level or MCL allowed in soil or groundwater based on toxicity studies and other statistical analyses. These maximums are sometimes referred to as cleanup levels or action levels and form the basis for determining that a site has been "cleaned-up" (another term seldom found in a competent environmental report.) All known hazardous substances have such levels defined by state rules.

For example a common MCL for gasoline in soil is now 100 mg/kg (or 100 parts per million) whereas the MCL for just the Benzene portion of the gasoline in groundwater is 1 g/L (one part per billion.) Sites that involve the potential contamination of groundwater will likely be radically more difficult and expensive to achieve a "no further action" level than sites with soil contamination only.

Why do I have to do this testing? If you must do a level 2 site assessment, there may already be the suspicion of a problem on your site. Perhaps a level 1 assessment indicated a problem on your or nearby property. Perhaps an undesirable sample has been drawn from a neighbor's water well. A level 2 assessment can also mean that your state department of ecology or environment has been contacted and may have ordered this investigation based on the follow-up of a complaint. There could be a regional groundwater issue or some other contamination issue and certain property owners may have been identified based on the predicted or known flow path of a known substance.

Banks are often more strict than government agencies on certain environmental issues, and a simple refinancing may involve a lender or an underwriter's requirement for such a test on commercial property. An owner may also voluntarily order a report for due diligence based on advice or suspicion that a nearby activity may have affected his or her property.  

Is this an environmental impact assessment? (Click here for some views of a typical cleanup.) A level 2 or phase 2 environmental site assessment can sometimes be considered an impact assessment. Sometimes the same activity can be called a cleanup. The assessment can also be an instrumental part of the planning process in large scale projects. The scope of such studies can be broad and difficult to predict depending on the details of the site and the project, and the characteristics of the of the potential hazard.

found unmarked 55 gallon drum - could it be a problem or not?What should the cost be for a Level 2 environmental assessment?

The scale and therefore the cost of the sampling will vary widely depending on whether significant multidisciplinary or complex environmental issues are present. However a figure credited to the World Bank for large scale projects is the one per-cent rule based on the cost of construction not including operational accidents. Costs will be lower if the assessment is done before significant construction has started. The cost of a smaller scale assessment will be determined by the assessor based on the likelihood of encountering a known hazard. 

There will be no guarantee of a "clean" site. The only way to prove a site clean is to excavate 100% of the area, an unrealistic idea. A plan for a logical pattern of samples must be designed with the goal of performing a diligent search for potential environmental conditions. There is no standard way of laying out a pattern or depth of sample locations except in the case of very common sites such as gas stations and the systematic removal of obsolete and leaking underground storage tanks (LUST.) These sites involve standard sizes, capacities and other conditions. For instance, when removing underground fuel storage tanks, sampling the soil in the walls and along the bottom of the excavated cavity for each tank is logical strategy and covered by standard state rules and a standard number of samples.

Almost all other Level 2 sites will require thought and planning to get close to the truth about the underground conditions. Mostly the number and type of samples will determine the cost of this phase. For a site involving the possibility of hazardous chemical substances, standard tests are performed on samples of materials taken from the site by the assessor using standard techniques based mostly on experience. The costs associated with assessing a site usually include some clean-up and/ or repair costs:

protective gloves and equipment should always be used when sampling any materials1. Sampling costs: Unlike a phase 1, the level 2 or phase 2 environmental site assessment always has sampling costs. Samples are extracted by digging or drilling into the site with invasive tools or heavy equipment. Sample locations are determined by the assessor sometimes in consultation with state officials. Depending on the nature of the hazard, protective clothing or other precautions may be advised. Deeper excavation below twelve feet will require special shoring or other structural precautions plus expert excavating skills or even structural consultation. Complicated sites may require official clearance by several agencies based on written proposals before excavation and sampling can begin. Every site is different. A track hoe including operator will cost around $100 per hour or more including travel. The assessor will cost at least about the same per hour.

As a warning, sites involving strict oversight by government officials could exponentially expand site costs and result in delays and second guessing. Unqualified people sometimes inhabit positions of authority, and they may intercede in the management of a cleanup trying to appear protective of the public trust. Routine cleanup projects often involve private consultants working regularly with known experienced officials. When consultants utilize working relationships with qualified officials, sampling costs will most likely be realistic based on the goals of the study rather than internal turf wars.

2. Handling the samples: Samples must be taken from the site conforming mostly to strict protocols from the lab often determined through state rules. All samples must be numbered and carefully packed and conveyed to the lab under "chain of custody." When the cooler is passed from the sampler to the courier to the lab, signatures are required with dates and times for each handler. Once the lab has analyzed the samples, further rounds of sampling may be indicated to follow "hot" spots or chase substances down into the deeper soil layers.

3. Lab costs: Every chemical or biological material being tested will cost so-much per sample. For instance each standard soil and water sample checking for constituents of petroleum will cost $60 to $120 or more, sometimes based on the total number of samples handled. Samples have special storage conditions depending on the analysis. Some samples will have to be stored on ice for instance. Certain preservatives are required for some substances. Certain cleaned standard containers with special lids and labels may be required by the lab. A normal assessment for a small site seldom requires less than a dozen samples.

4. Documenting the site work and interpreting lab results: Writing the report includes measurements, maps, sample locations and background data concerning the site and often its history. Three dimensional grids, computer aided drawings and many photos will likely be required to chronicle the process of the extractions. Waste dirt with suspected contaminants will have to be placed on plastic awaiting transportation to a disposal facility once lab results are in. Interim reports may be required for each stage of sampling and a final report will be required when all the lab results are published. The final report must be complete with all technical results, but the report should be understandable by the average person. The report will likely be forever associated with the property and many are officially recorded as public documents. 

5. Getting rid of the waste dirt: Each round of sampling is followed by lab testing until all samples fall below cleanup levels for the known substance.  The total amount of dirt removed to the staging area is estimated and the concentration of the known hazardous material in the dirt is determined by lab results from several grab samples. The assessor will then search for the closest disposal facility. Some substances may have to be sent to regional incinerators or land fills in other states. Each disposal facility will have a cost per volume to dispose of each substance and the assessor will chose the cheapest often based on transportation costs. The site will then be backfilled with clean fill and surface improvements repaired and landscaped.

Then what? Following the final round of testing and report publication, the assessor will petition the state for a "no further action letter." There may be a waiting period specified to give time for additional problems or comments to immerge. Inspection ports may be required for continual monitoring particularly if groundwater is involved. Other remedial action may be advised in the future. Otherwise the state may let you go at this point and the Level 2 environmental site assessment is complete. However If all of the hot spots were not followed down, if the contamination remains under buildings, or if all of the problem substance was not removed, a Level 3 Cleanup or a stabilizing cap or other construction would be the next step.

If the sampling plan was logically laid out and accurately executed by qualified people, you will find the shortest path to peace of mind with your property, the eco-nomic solution.

Conclusions: Because the prior existence of a hazard on property will affect the current value, everything possible must be done to contain and control problems when they are found. Careful checking may find no hazard or a simple cleanup. Success no further action is usually the result of thoughtful planning and intelligent action. Government agencies will generally stay out of a properly run site except to spot check and advise. ECO-NOMIC has the experience and is equipped to handle level 1, 2 and 3 sites primarily in Eastern Washington State.

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Last Revised: 05/22/2012
Copyright 1997-2012 ECO-NOMIC Inc. All rights reserved.
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1. Your lawyer's expertise is in the law.

Before directing you about a possible environmental problem, your lawyer must get the current rules and regulations. The lawyer will probably call an environmental colleague. Now you will have two experts to pay before you even get started on the cleanup. Your lawyer will protect you later if liability is uncovered with the tank.

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2. Ecology may have to be called but . . . .

You may have to call them eventually but now is a little too soon. You should have your own assessment in hand before talking to state or federal officials. This avoids embarrassing and costly false alarms. These people will be useful and must be contacted in the case of a mess that could harm the public.

Even if you have a problem, due diligence identifying and evaluating environmental risks will be your responsibility in most states but only with qualified help.

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3. Dig/Dug Backhoe will usually offer to help.

Attempting a cleanup without expert advice can cost you plenty. Digging up a site may destroy evidence that could protect you later if worse problems are found. Also, putting excavated dirt in the wrong place could expand your responsibility into clean areas.

If you get caught trying to cleanup a substance that could harm the public and the substance is found on your site in concentrations that exceed cleanup levels, everyone involved will tell you that you should have thought twice about attempting to clean it up yourself without acceptable documentation.

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4. Eco Services have probably seen it before.

Hiring a qualified expert is your best choice. If you have a problem, this puts you in the driver's seat. Seeking professional help is never easy but if a cleanup is required, you will need the help. You will need someone to direct you to the best people outside of the government and to express your points to those inside. Also, you will need to explore the least expensive waste disposal and cleanup options.

However, most site evaluations don't find big problems. Sometimes an underground fuel tank turns out to be a septic tank or an abandoned electrical vault.

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5. Local Health will come and look if you call.

It's too soon to call local health. Health departments are a good source for help in finding reliable and qualified companies in your area to look at your site. They will show concern about any situation that may harm human health or the environment. In most areas, only you and your qualified expert will be responsible at this stage to explore the tank if the site is not a registered hazardous site (a label that you want to avoid) and if it is not in an area of special concern.

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6. The Police are not interested in your tank.

The police are interested in your site only if there is evidence of a crime. You want to avoid triggering a hazardous materials response. Finding a tank on your property is not a crime.

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