Understanding the Records Review in a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) According to ASTM E1527-21

When considering the purchase or development of a property, it’s crucial to understand its environmental history. A Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) is designed to identify potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities. One key component of a Phase 1 ESA, as outlined by ASTM E1527-21, is the records review. This blog post will walk you through what this entails, breaking down the complex process into understandable parts.

What is a Phase 1 ESA?

A Phase 1 ESA is an evaluation of a property to identify potential or existing environmental contamination. It’s often required during real estate transactions, refinancing, or before development. The goal is to protect stakeholders by identifying any environmental issues that could affect property value or liability.

The Role of the Records Review

The records review is a critical part of the Phase 1 ESA process. It involves examining various documents and databases to uncover past and present uses of the property and surrounding areas that could indicate environmental concerns. Here’s a closer look at what this involves:

Key Components of the Records Review

  1. Historical Records
    • Aerial Photographs: These photos provide a visual timeline of the property’s development and use over the years. Reviewing these images helps identify previous industrial activities, waste disposal areas, and other potential sources of contamination.
    • Fire Insurance Maps: These maps, often dating back to the 19th century, show the layout of buildings and infrastructure, including the use of certain materials and the presence of hazardous substances.
    • Property Tax Records: These records can reveal the types of buildings and uses of the property over time, aiding in understanding historical operations that might have caused contamination.
    • Building Permits and Land Use Records: These documents provide insights into past construction, renovations, and land uses that could have environmental implications.
  2. Environmental Records
    • Federal and State Databases: These databases include information on sites listed under regulatory programs like the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and others. They help identify properties with known environmental issues.
    • Local Environmental Records: Local agencies might have records of spills, leaks, and other environmental incidents that aren’t captured in federal databases.
  3. Title Records
    • Chain of Title Documents: Reviewing the ownership history can reveal past owners who might have conducted operations leading to contamination. It helps trace back the property’s usage history and identify any environmental risks associated with previous owners.
  4. Environmental Liens and Activity and Use Limitations (AULs)
    • Environmental Liens: These are legal claims imposed on the property due to contamination. Identifying these liens is crucial as they affect the property’s value and the buyer’s liability.
    • AULs: These are restrictions or obligations placed on the property to limit certain activities or uses to prevent exposure to contaminants. Understanding AULs helps in assessing any constraints on the property.

The Process of Conducting a Records Review

Collecting Data

he environmental professional (EP) starts by gathering all relevant records. This involves accessing public databases, requesting documents from local government offices, and consulting historical records.

Analyzing Data

The EP meticulously examines the collected records, looking for indications of past and present uses that could lead to environmental contamination. This includes identifying any industrial operations, waste disposal practices, or hazardous material usage.

Cross-Referencing Information

The data from different sources are cross-referenced to corroborate findings. For instance, if a fire insurance map shows an industrial facility, the EP will check aerial photographs and other records to confirm the facility’s existence and operations.

Reporting Findings

The EP compiles the findings into a comprehensive report. This report outlines any Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs), Historical Recognized Environmental Conditions (HRECs), and Controlled Recognized Environmental Conditions (CRECs) identified during the review.

Why is the Records Review Important?

  • Risk Management: It helps identify potential environmental liabilities that could affect property value and lead to costly cleanups or legal issues.
  • Informed Decision-Making: Provides buyers, lenders, and developers with essential information to make informed decisions about the property.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Ensures that the assessment complies with legal requirements, protecting parties from liability under laws like CERCLA.


The records review is a vital part of the Phase 1 ESA, providing a historical and regulatory backdrop that helps identify environmental risks associated with a property. By meticulously examining historical records, environmental databases, title documents, and more, environmental professionals can uncover hidden issues and provide stakeholders with the information they need to make sound decisions. Understanding this process is crucial for anyone involved in property transactions or development, ensuring that environmental liabilities are thoroughly assessed and managed.

By demystifying the records review process, we hope this blog post helps you appreciate the depth of work involved in a Phase 1 ESA and the importance of this step in safeguarding both environmental and financial interests.

Nicholas Moran

Nicholas Moran

Nicholas Moran grew up in sunny south Florida and lives in Boca Raton. He studied geologist and is a licensed professional geologist. He helps environmental and engineering companies implement software solutions to improve their efficiency and effectiveness and is Senior Geologist at MORAN ROCKS LLC, a boutique environmental consulting firm that uses the latest technology and workflow solutions to deliver personalized service at competitive prices.