August Mack Newsletter | July, 2019

A Dream Turned into a Nightmare: Why We Do the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment
by Shawn Woll

Why do we do the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA)? Because of William T. Love, that’s why. Not the answer you were expecting? Maybe you thought I would say that we do a Phase I ESA to identify potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities on a piece of real estate. While this answer is correct (and legalistic) it doesn’t give the full story needed to know why we do a Phase I ESA. This story starts over 130 years ago in upstate New York in the year 1890.

Just a short 25 years after Robert E. Lee issued a surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, which ended the American Civil War, a man named William T. Love had an idea for a planned living community. This community would be built on a tract of land Love purchased near Niagara Falls, New York. Love planned to supply his community with low-cost fuel by digging a short canal between the upper and lower Niagara River. However, by 1910 his vision was a failure. All that remained of Love’s planned community was an unfinished ditch that would have been his canal.

Not much is known of Love after his community failed. Rumor has it that Love moved out West during the American Gold Rush. By 1920, the canal that was left behind became a landfill for municipal and industrial waste. Remember, dumping waste in a hole is how we still dispose of some of our waste today. Landfilling is an acceptable practice as long as the landfill is properly sited, constructed, monitored, and regulated. Unfortunately, Love’s canal did not meet any of those criteria.  From 1920 until 1940, the site was a dump for municipal waste and until about 1950 a site for industrial waste. Approximately 21 thousand short tons of chemical byproducts of industrial manufacturing were disposed of in the landfill.

 In 1953, Hooker Chemical Company, the owner of the site, covered the landfill and sold the property to the city. The city bought the land off of Hooker Chemical for $1.00. Even adjusting for inflation to today’s dollar value ($10.65), that was a bad deal.  By the late 1950s, 100 homes and a school was built on the property and a hardworking middle-class community started to blossom. For 30 years the residents lived, worked, and played in this community. In 1978, torrential rain brought to the surface the nightmare below the earth that was poisoning residents for over two decades. This infamous event known simply as ”Love Canal” sent shockwaves through the American psyche. Burned into the memories of all Americans born before 1960, Love Canal caused sweeping changes to American environmental policy.

How bad was Love Canal? Here is a quote directly from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2 Administrator Eckardt C. Beck in a 1979 EPA Journal:

I visited the canal area at that time. Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.

So to answer your question, Love Canal was bad. And, if the immediate concerns weren’t enough, families had to be concerned with the possibility of birth defects due to prolonged exposure to hazardous chemicals. Again, to quote Eckardt C. Beck in the same 1979 EPA Journal:

Two of this woman's four grandchildren have birth defects. The children were born and raised in the Love Canal community. A granddaughter was born deaf with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth, and slight retardation. A grandson was born with an eye defect.

In response to Love Canal and other incidents, the US EPA in 1980 enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as “Superfund”. CERCLA levied a tax on the petroleum and chemical industry and gave the Federal Government broad response and cleanup power. CERCLA created a National Priorities List, which Love Canal was the first listed. CERCLA determines who can be held liable for the release of a hazardous substance. Because of the “retroactive liability” that is included in CERCLA, Hooker Chemical Company, now Occidental Petroleum, was held liable for the release. Simply put, a property owner can be held liable for a release or threat of release, regardless of fault, by simple ownership of the property. CERCLA does, however, allow for liability relief for certain parties given they follow the outline in the statute. The three most-common CERCLA liability protections are 1) Innocent Landowner, 2) Contiguous Property Owner, and 3) Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser.

So, this brings us back to our original question: why do we do the Phase I ESA? For one, to obtain CERCLA liability relief and two, so that an incident like Love Canal never happens again. In Eckardt C. Beck’s 1979 EPA Journal he quotes a long-time resident of Love canal saying, "We knew they put chemicals into the canal and filled it over.” This line haunts me and solidifies why we do the Phase I ESA because sometimes we don’t know and sometimes we do know and don’t do anything about it. 

Shawn Woll is the Business Development Representative for August Mack Environmental, Inc. in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania office. He has industry experience in geologic field services, sustainability, and, design and installation of renewable energy systems. Shawn heads the business development in the Pennsylvania office focusing on compliance, transaction, and eCAP clients. Shawn earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Geoscience from The Pennsylvania State University. Shawn can be reached at 717.399.9587 ext. 227 or via email at

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