Environmental Consultants Roundtable Series: What’s In a Certification?

It’s professional, not personal—or at least it should be. That’s the view of the Phase I Environmental Consultants Roundtable (ECR) on establishing stricter standards for who can perform a Phase I environmental site assessment. In January 2012, more than 200 Phase I ESA professionals from across the country formed ECR. Their mission: to “function as an information gathering and dissemination forum” in the hope that “by working together to provide a consistent message on industry practice, they will improve the status of the industry and better educate clients.” At its meeting in October 2012 during the ASTM meeting in Atlanta, ECR members made presentations on key topics identified by ECR members as important to the industry, but which have not been specifically addressed in the ASTM E 1527 Phase I standard. The ECR report, titled “What You Need to Know as a Phase I Environmental Professional That is Not in the ASTM E 1527 Standard,” is a summary of the discussion on 12 issues of concern being addressed by the group. This Technical Brief is the second in the EDR Insight series to tackle each issue individually. (The first in the series was titled Fighting Against Price Commoditization.) Below is the content from the white paper on the topic of EP certifications, interspersed with feedback provided directly to EDR Insight by environmental professionals in the field.

Is There a Qualified Environmental Professional On Site?

To be compliant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s All Appropriate Inquiries Rule (40 CFR Part 312), the inquiry must be conducted by, or under the supervision of, “a qualified environmental professional” as defined in the 2005 AAI rule. Unfortunately, the rule did not require certification by an independent body that an individual met the AAI “qualified environmental professional” criteria, rather it permitted self-declaration. This is recognized as a problem in the industry because of the definition’s latitude in many cases and the fact that a number of the requirements are subject to interpretation with respect to Phase I relevancy. The end-result is a high degree of variability in Phase I ESA report quality and pricing. “The preamble to the AAI rule provides a discussion of the U.S. EPA’s attempt to balance the public’s concerns over the definition of environmental professional in the final rule,” says Alan Agadoni, senior vice president of national programs at Cardno ATC. “The definition is okay, [but] it is really up to the users and environmental professionals to make it work in practice.”

To address the lack of specificity in the federal EP definition, the ECR focused on two specific questions at its October 2012 workshop:

  1.  Do reputable national certifications exist specifically for Phase I ESA professionals?; and
  2. Should the Roundtable develop a national Phase I certification program or support (an) existing national certification(s) program?

National Phase I Certification Programs

Two reputable national Phase I certifications were identified. The first was the National Registry of Environmental Professional’s (NREP) Registered Environmental Property Assessor (REPA) certification. The second was the International Society of Technical Environmental Professionals (INSTEP) Licensed Environmental Professional (LEP) Certification. The REPA certification requires an individual to meet EPA’s AAI requirements for an EP and pass an exam. The INSTEP-LEP certification also requires minimum qualifications and an examination. There are reputable Phase I certification programs in Florida and Nevada as well, but these are not national.

Elizabeth Krol, an environmental due diligence manager, notes that many comparable industries have reputable national certification programs. Such programs would lend legitimacy to the property due diligence process. “The industry is overdue for an EP certification program for Phase I professionals,” says Krol. “Certification ensures quality services and raises the bar in the industry, with a higher barrier to entry.” And quality services can only be delivered by a Phase I professional who has extensive background knowledge in whatever transaction he or she is involved in. “Specific experience conducting AAI projects at similar property types in similar settings is critical to success,” observed Krol. There needs to be a way to ensure accountability within the industry; a national certification program could provide the overarching checks and balances that are currently lacking.

Krol is certainly not alone in her concern for the varying experience of environmental professionals within the property due diligence industry. In a thread last May on commonground, a social networking community for environmental consultants and commercial real estate professionals, several EPs weighed in on the need for a national certification program. One wrote that certification would give “well qualified EPs” the opportunity “to distinguish themselves from others.” He went on to say, “If we can find an organization we respect and are willing to join, then the other stakeholders will get on board.” The discussion included mention of INSTEP-LEP certification as a viable option.

Step One: Certification
Step Two: Education, Education, Education

A national certification program is a good start, agrees Alan Agadoni, but notes that there needs to be ongoing follow-up. “Certification programs can help ESA users identify who might be qualified, but I am also a strong advocate for industry participation in continuing education like the ESA-specific courses offered by ASTM, commonground University (cgu) and The Environmental Institute,” he says. It is worth noting that Agadoni helped create, and has co-directed a course on ESAs since the early 1990s for The Environmental Institute (TEI), which is the training division of Cardno ATC. Of that time, he says, “the industry was in the formative stages and there was no clear consensus on what an ESA even was.” The course Agadoni co-directs provides consultants and clients with detailed instruction on the methods, technical issues and business practices associated with ESAs.

“For over 20 years, I have been imploring students who attended our classes to establish a strong foundation and then to keep on learning,” says Agadoni. “The knowledge required to conduct ESAs is constantly expanding and changing. Even the most experienced EPs need to recognize their limitations and keep things fresh.” To that end, he also supported the creation of commonground University and participated in developing some of its ESA course materials. “We have come a long way since the original TEI course was created, but we are still an industry that needs to support training,” he says. “A strong certification program may be helpful toward that end.”

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It seems that the ECR has touched upon an issue that is top-of-mind for many EPs, as evidenced by the often-heated discussions in communities like commonground and in various LinkedIn groups. Spurring this type of dialogue is of course what the group intended to do, to shed light on topics of critical importance to the industry in the hope of “…improving the status of the industry and better educating clients.” This discussion will likely continue as support of a national certification program grows.

NOTE TO READERS: EDR Insight would like to thank Alan Agadoni and Elizabeth Krol for sharing their valuable insights for this brief.
EDR Insight is also grateful to Anthony Buonicore for providing permission to quote from the ECR’s first publication.

About the ECR

The report, What You Need to Know as a Phase I Environmental Professional That is Not in the ASTM E 1527 Standard, is a summary of the discussion on key topics prepared by individuals who volunteered their time to make presentations and provide discussion leadership at the ECR workshop held on October 23, 2012 in Atlanta, GA.

The Phase I Environmental Consultants Roundtable meets four times per year, in conjunction with the spring and fall ASTM meetings and winter and summer Environmental Bankers Association meetings. To learn more about the Roundtable, including its mission and objectives, visit the Roundtable’s section on commonground where a separate area has been set up to share information and collect feedback from the entire Phase I industry.

The presentations used as the basis for workshop discussion can be accessed at the Phase I Environmental Consultant Roundtable web page.

To become a site user, you must be a member of the commonground community (click Join on the site to obtain a password). Comments and feedback can be submitted directly on the web site under the appropriate category. There is no cost to become a member of the Roundtable.