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Social Media and Site Assessments

Loureiro recently reviewed a Phase I Site Assessment completed by others for a commercial property.  The site appeared innocuous enough – a recently renovated commercial building within a historically commercial district.  No evidences of any current or historical activities that pointed toward any use of oil or hazardous materials except a historical reference to a launderer on the property.  Nothing further, until the investigator searched social media, in this case Instagram, finding a historical photograph of a dry cleaner on the property.  A subsurface investigation confirmed a release of dry cleaning solvents. 

Two questions:

  • Presuming the investigator had not completed a search of social media to identify the historical dry cleaner, would the historical reference to a “launderer” have warranted the additional investigation that discovered the solvent?  Would it have risen to the level of a Recognized Environmental Condition (REC)?
  • Should information available through websites and social media be considered an element of the Phase I process and if so when?

Buyers, sellers, lenders, insurers and others use Phase I Environmental Site Assessments in commercial real estate transactions to gain an understanding of current and historical operations and the environmental condition of properties. The goal of the environmental site assessor is to gather information regarding the property and its surroundings to form a complete picture of the environmental conditions at the property.   A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment can alert potential buyers to historic releases preventing the buyer from unknowingly taking on unwanted liability for an environmental cleanup.  

Most environmental site assessments follow the ASTM Standard (E-1527-13) which requires review of all “reasonably ascertainable” information to identify potential current and historical uses at a site.  The Standard provides examples of standard historical sources of information such as aerial photographs, fire insurance maps, property tax files, recorded land title records, USGS Topographic Maps, local street directories, Building Department Records, Zoning/Land Use Records, and “other historical sources”. The ASTM Standard defines other historical sources as any other sources that are credible to a reasonable person and that identify past uses of the property. This category includes miscellaneous maps, newspaper archives, internet sites, community organizations, local libraries, historical societies, current owners or occupants of neighboring properties, or records in the files and/or personal knowledge of the property (E1527-13, 8.3.4.9).  The Environmental Professional must use their discretion to interpret the ASTM Standard and determine how much information is enough. 

But 1527-13 was issued in 2013, coincident with the explosion in popularity of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Most modern businesses and companies have some degree of online presence. Depending on the nature of the business, that presence could be limited to current conditions but it can also extend to historical information – photos of the company founders standing in front of the original storefront.  Add to that random posts on other social media platforms and the potential for information on a Site to exist on the internet is significant.  This rapid increase in the volume of information that could potentially inform an Environmental Professional’s opinion begs the question of when enough information is enough.

Further, users must be diligent to evaluate the accuracy of information available.  Yes, there is a photo of a dry cleaner in the 1950s but are we sure of the location?  Information provided through public records searches (e.g., review of Assessors cards, state environmental files) are generally presumed to be accurate with respect to the basic facts.  Such accuracy cannot be presumed with respect to information on the internet or through social media. 

The amount of information available on the internet regarding people and properties will only increase as obtaining information from the internet becomes more routine.  Social media will undoubtedly play a role in how this information is gathered and distributed.  As this information becomes more readily available, it will become increasingly necessary for environmental professionals to evaluate the accuracy and reliability of the information and to determine when they have gathered enough information to develop a sufficient understanding of site conditions to draw defensible conclusions. 

Linnea Johnson
Loureiro Engineering Associates, Inc.