Written by Andrew Dorn, P.E., a Senior Engineer with BBJ Group.
Tucked neatly in Appendix X3 of ASTM E1527-13, Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process, you will find the User Questionnaire. According to ASTM, the standard provides this “optional User Questionnaire to assist the user and the environmental professional in gathering information from the user that may be material to identifying recognized environmental conditions (RECs)”. Upon receipt of the User Questionnaire, clients typically ask themselves (and sometimes me):
“Didn’t I hire the environmental professional to figure this stuff out?”
The answer to this question is “yes . . . but.” Yes, you did hire the consultant to figure this stuff out. Your consultant will pour over blurry aerials from the 1940s, review 500+ pages of an Environmental Data Resource (EDR) database, file multiple information requests, and even visit the site. But, you have a better understanding of the site than the consultant can develop over the course of the limited Phase I engagement. Therefore, it is important for you to share your site knowledge so your consultant can get a better picture of the site.
Many users wonder what information they should provide. This is where a good environmental consultant makes a big difference. The wrong way to complete this portion of the ASTM standard assessment is to email the user a list of questions. We have seen these as short as a couple of questions and as long as 60 pages of detailed questions. These lengthy questionnaires usually annoy the user and do not elicit useable information because the user is not familiar with the acronym soup provided in these documents. In reality the user questionnaire tends to be more of a CYA for the consultant than an attempt at getting good information for the assessment.
By way of comparison, BBJ Group recommends actually talking to the user. Based on a few preliminary questions, the overall knowledge level of the user can be assessed, and the environmental consultant can then tailor the questions to their audience. Compare:
- Have there been any reportable releases from any AST, UST or other regulated container?
- Have you ever had to clean up a spill from one of your storage tanks?
Once the appropriate information has been elicited, the environmental consultant can then ask follow-up questions. This often allows for the development of lines of evidence that allow the environmental consultant to make an assessment other than a Recognized Environmental Condition (REC). Compare:
- Have there been any reportable releases from any AST, UST or other regulated container? If yes, explain.
- What did you do when you noticed the spill?
A short email summarizing the conversation and the environmental consultant’s conclusions should follow the call.
Typically, we find that the users have a good handle on their environmental response procedures, even though they can’t explain them in a small text box in a pdf. Many times, we will be able to work with the user to understand the issues in a way that allows us to make a Historic REC or de minimis condition assessment instead of a REC determination based on this follow-up.
In conclusion, the user questionnaire represents an opportunity to efficiently gather important information from the only person that may be in the know. It also remains one of the few opportunities to develop rapport with your client, trading information and explanations in a way that makes them comfortable with the process and feel like they had the opportunity to have a say in the outcome.