The application of inappropriate tests during the environmental site assessment led to erroneous conclusions of oil contamination and $100,000 down the drain

Also see: Contaminant Sleuth: Robert Harris detects toxins in food, wine, soil

A land development company in Northern California began improving a 13-acre site for inclusion in a nearby light industrial park.  The improvements included adding fill soils from various nearby locations to bring the parcel “up to grade” and retard potential flooding. When grading was accomplished, the site was put on the market and attracted the attention of a large industrial concern.

The buyer requested a Phase I site assessment that was conducted at the land owner’s expense by a local civil engineering firm. It included shallow soil borings and chemical analysis.

  • The engineering firm’s laboratory, chosen for cost reasons only, performed “customary” analyses and reported that the soils were contaminated with used motor oil.

This finding extinguished the buyer’s interest in the property and compelled the owner to undertake extensive additional soils and groundwater testing.

  • Five years later the owner had spent over $100,000 on environmental assessments and consulting without conclusive results.

The next step, he was told, was a full-scale risk assessment of the property, at a cost in excess of $250,000. At the suggestion of his bank, the property owner contacted Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences, LLC and requested an evaluation of the work done to date on the property. The bank was aware of Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences, LLC’ expertise in environmental chemistry and toxicology.

No oil found in the soils

In reviewing the engineering firm’s data on the site, Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences, LLC quickly determined that inadequacies in the initial environmental site assessment analysis plan led to the application of inappropriate tests and, likewise, to erroneous conclusions of oil contamination.                    

All of the analytical chemistry performed to evaluate the site for organic constituents was faulty due to application of incorrect analytical procedures.                   

  • Specifically, the California Leaking Underground Fuel Tanks (LUFT) procedure was used, even though it is only for samples taken from directly underneath a leaking tank.
  • In addition, the EPA Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) was used, even though samples from sites such as this are specifically excluded from the testing procedure.

Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences developed a new soil sampling and analysis plan for the property, one that would properly characterize the site through the use of appropriate EPA protocols. The analyses were conducted by laboratories Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences had audited and qualified as competent for these tasks. 

The resulting data showed that there was no motor oil on the site. Rather, the improper chemistry techniques of the engineering firm’s laboratory had mistakenly identified naturally occurring organic matter as petroleum compounds.