• Data Overload -Part 1

  • One of the most important tasks for any consultant working on a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) is the research component. The primary purpose of the ESA is to determine actual or potential sources of environmental concern that may be associated with the subject Site, as well as surrounding and nearby properties; which typically involves looking at a lot of environmental databases. Sufficient relevant data must be reviewed to confirm the site and area history, to assess current and historical activities, and to use this data to evaluate potential environmental issues.

    Getting the ‘Right’ Data

    Before one can accurately assess the data, you must determine what specific data is required, and balance those requirements with the availability (and costs) of such data. This may vary with the type of ESA being conducted, the objectives of the ESA stakeholders, the geographic location and the applicable regulations governing the assessment. For example the Canadian Standards Association under CSA-Z-768-01 specifies mandatory and optional research items for Phase 1 ESA, which are sufficient for transactional due diligence. However when a Record of Site Condition (RSC) is required for a change in land use (in Ontario only) additional mandatory research items are required by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change under Ontario Regulation 153/04, as amended. A different set of data is required to complete the ESA process for an Upstream Oil and Gas site in Alberta, including site-specific records regarding drilling muds and oil well production. The consultant must therefore pre-determine the use and objectives of the ESA, and follow all the applicable regulatory requirements to properly complete the assessment. The Site locale can also influence the type and amount of information that is available. You can expect to spend extra time researching more databases for an urban setting than rural, and if you are looking at an old industrial property in a major city some records can go back over 150 years. Unique settings like First Nations land may yield less published data, with more information to be found in the community’s oral history; so the assessor will need to include appropriate consultation, communication, and interviews to gather their required data.

    “Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted.” Albert Einstein


    Getting the Data ‘Right’

    One of the best tools I have found for this research, and one I highly recommend in AESAC’s Phase 1 ESA training course, is an environmental database report from Environmental Risk Information Services (ERIS). ERIS has been providing customized database reports to consultants, developers, insurers, municipalities and others since 1999 in Canada, and since 2013 in the United States. When determining ESA research requirements, or ordering an ERIS database you should always consider the following:

    • Understand the ESA and client objectives, and follow the appropriate regulatory standards.
    • Determine how far back your historical review must extend (i.e. when was Site’s first developed use that could impact the Site).
    • Gather as much information as you can about current and prior site owners and occupants, and ensure you have a complete description of your Site (legal description, street address, geographic coordinates, and plan showing full extent of subject property).
    • Determine the required search distances for your study area (both by regulation and to adequately assess environmental issues affecting your site).
    • Relay all the appropriate and relevant information to your database administrator, or research provider, and follow up if there are any uncertainties.
    • Conduct additional research as needed with the municipality, ministry or other government agencies in order to validate records of interest or concern.

    ERIS (www.eris.ca) has over 6 million records in 488 databases from Provincial, Federal and Private sources. 12,000 to 16,000 Site reports and 30,000 to 40,000 historical products are ordered every year in Canada.

    In my next article I will discuss the use of the ERIS database report, and review some of the common problems and solutions encountered with environmental databases in general.


    Bill Leedham, P. Geo., CESA, QPESA

    Bill is the Head Instructor and Course Developer for the Associated Environmental Site Assessors of Canada (www.aesac.ca); and the founder and President of Down 2 Earth Environmental Services Inc. (www.down2earthenvironmental.ca)