The short answer is no.
Environmental consultants routinely submit environmental questionnaires to property owners and their clients as part of the phase 1 process. Some consultants tell their clients that they are obligated to complete the questionnaire to be able to comply with EPA’s All Appropriate Inquires (“AAI”) rule. A few go as far as saying they cannot issue a phase 1 report unless the client completes the questionnaire. However, this is flat out wrong.
EPA’s AAI rule does not require users to complete the questionnaire. Indeed, the AAI Rule does not even require purchasers, brownfield grantee or lender (collectively the “user”) to provide the results of their “additional inquiries” to the environmental professional much less complete a questionnaire to satisfy with AAI. All the user needs to do is demonstrate that it performed those “additional inquiries” We will now break down the user obligations.
The AAI rule identified what elements of the investigation were the responsibility of the environmental professional and which criteria were the responsibility of the prospective purchaser or brownfield grantee. The information that has to be obtained by the user are known as “additional inquiries” and set forth in 40 C.F.R. 312.22. The “additional inquiries” include: specialized knowledge or experience of the prospective landowner (or grantee); the relationship of the purchase price to the fair market value of the property, if the property was not contaminated; and commonly known or reasonably ascertainable information.
In the preamble summarizing the changes from the proposed rule to the final rule that was published in the November 1, 2005 federal register, EPA stated at page 66076:
“The final rule does not require the prospective landowner (or grantee) to provide the information collected as part of the “additional inquiries” to the environmental professional. Although we expect that most prospective landowners and grantees will furnish available information or knowledge about a property to an environmental professional he or she hired when such information could assist the environmental professional in ascertaining the environmental conditions at a property, we affirm that compliance with the statutory criteria does not require that such information be disclosed. [emphasis added].
Since it ultimately is up to the owner or operator of a property to defend his or herself against any claims to liability, we agree with commenters that asserted that the regulations should not require that prospective landowners (or grantees) provide information collected to comply with the “additional inquiries” provisions to the environmental professional. Should the required information not be provided to the environmental professional, the environmental professional should assess the impact that the lack of such information may have on his or her ability to render an opinion with regard to conditions indicative of releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances on, at, in or to the property. If the lack of information does impact the ability of the environmental professional to render an opinion with regard to the environmental conditions of the property, the environmental professional should note the missing information as a data gap in the written report.” [Emphasis added]
Beginning on page 66082 of the preamble to the AAI rule in the discussion captioned “H. Who Is Responsible for Conducting the All Appropriate Inquiries?” EPA stated as follows [note we have broken out large block paragraph into smaller paragraphs for ease of reading]:
“Several commenters asserted that the mandatory nature of the proposed provision requiring the prospective landowner to provide information regarding the four criteria listed above to the environmental professional is problematic. Particularly with regard to the requirement to provide “specialized knowledge or experience of the defendant,” commenters pointed out difficulties in a prospective landowner being able to document such knowledge and experience sufficiently. Also, with regard to the information related to the “relationship of the purchase price to the fair market value of the property, if the property was not contaminated,” many commenters pointed out that prospective landowners may not want to divulge information regarding the price paid for a property. Commenters pointed out that the requirement to consider “commonly known or reasonably ascertainable information” about a property is implicit to all aspects of the all appropriate inquiries requirements. In addition, commenters stated that CERCLA liability lies solely with the owners and operators of a vessel or property. A decision on the part of a prospective landowner to not furnish an environmental professional with certain information related to any of the statutory criteria can only affect the property owner’s ability to claim a liability protection provided under the statute. In addition, the statute does not mandate that information deemed to be the responsibility of the prospective landowner and not part of the “inquiry of the environment professional” be provided to the environmental professional or even be part of the inquiry of the environmental professional. Some of the statutory criteria are inherently the responsibility of the prospective landowner.
We agree with the commenters who asserted that the results and information related to the criteria identified as being the responsibility of the prospective landowner should not, as a matter of law, have to be provided to the environmental professional. The statute does not mandate that a prospective landowner provide all information to an environmental professional. Given that the burden of potential CERCLA liability ultimately falls upon the property owner or operator, a prospective landowner’s decision not to provide the results of an inquiry or related information to an environmental professional he or she hired to undertake other aspects of the all appropriate inquiries investigation can only affect the liability of the property owner.
In addition, we believe that the environmental professional may be able to develop an opinion with regard to conditions indicative of releases or threatened releases on, at, in, or to a property based upon the results of the criteria identified to be part of the “inquiry of an environmental professional.” Any information not furnished to the environmental professional by the prospective landowner that may affect the environmental professional’s ability to render such an opinion may be identified by the environmental professional as a “data gap.”
The provisions of the final rule (as did the proposed rule) then require that the environmental professional comment on the significance of the data gap or missing information on his or her ability to render such an opinion, in light of all other information collected and all other data sources consulted.
As a result of our consideration of the issues raised by commenters, today’s final rule modifies the requirements of Sec. 312.22 “additional inquiries” by stating (in paragraph (a)) that “persons * * * may provide the information associated with such inquiries [i.e., the information for which the prospective landowner or brownfields grantee is responsible] to the environmental professional * * *.” The proposed rule provided that such information “must be provided” to the environmental professional.” [Emphasis Added]
AAI is a performance-based regulation. Failure to provide the information in 40 CFR 312.22 does not cause a prospective purchaser or party seeking the landowner liability protection to automatically lose its liability protection. The user may lose its ability to claim the protections IF the absence of that information prevents the EP from reaching a conclusion about the presence or absence of RECs or a release. At the end of the day, the EP has to decide if the failure to respond certain information is a significant data gap that prevents the EP from rendering a conclusion if there is a release (or REC).
The questionnaire is just the starting point for the due diligence since the environmental consultant will perform its own site inspection and historical records review. It will be a rare occasion when a purchaser or lender will have material information about the property that the consultant will not be able to obtain or that will result in a data gap that will prevent the consultant from determining if there is a recognized environmental condition (REC) on the property. The absence of an uncompleted questionnaire will not be significant in the overwhelming number of transactions where the client is a purchaser or lender. If the consultant still feels obligated to identify failure to prepare the questionnaire as data gap in such a situation, the consultant should be required to indicate that the data gap is not significant and does not alter the conclusions of the report.