Can We Talk? Using Conversations to Avoid Buying and Environmental Problem

Over the decades we have found holding conversations to be one of the most effective investigative tools. So often with Phase I Environmental Assessments, the critical information is not documented anywhere; rather, it is held in the memories of those familiar with the property. No database search, review of documents or site inspection will grant you access to this information. You only gain access by talking to people. 

Interviews are fun but they can be challenging. The direct approach is rarely the best approach. People often do not want to answer questions. Those who want to talk, may embellish a memory in order to make their answers more interesting. Sometimes a person may purposely misinform or misdirect. In a few cases, people are actually hostile or openly fearful. I personally try to come in tangentially along a pleasant and personal line that is totally unrelated to the project. This is useful as it not only produces more candid and accurate information, but it also protects our clients’ interests. We do not want to inform people that a property is being sold or that our client is interested in buying it. Maintaining confidentiality is an important aspect of our work.

In any investigation, the first step is identifying and finding the right people to talk to. Law enforcement is where I most often start the process. Those charged with keeping a community safe are generally storehouses of all kinds of information. Law enforcement has been a traditional profession in my family for over a century, and as such speaking with law enforcement is a comfortable and familiar ground. Nonetheless, even here the approach is tangential and I try not to reveal what my true motives are.

Another great starting point is the local historical society. Most communities have a local historian. Asking about local history opens up a lot of people. Sometimes we simply start by asking an individual about the history of the town and the history of their family. These chats generally result in the identification of other individuals who may know things about a property that are not documented anywhere. 

I find face-to-face conversations to be the most revealing. If a person can look into your eyes and see your body language, they are more likely to feel comfortable enough to talk. Face-to-face interviews also can be dicey. On a study site in the deep south, I started a conversation with a homeowner on an adjoining property. Within a few minutes I found myself sitting at a well worn kitchen table with a huge glass of sweet tea, listening to some fascinating family history. Eventually we got to what I was really interested in. Although long, the path leading there was delightful. 

Another time I was with a client in a distressed mobile home park in the Appalachians. We made the mistake of asking a direct question to an older resident who was sitting with his friends on the hood of a car drinking beer. The conversation immediately went in the wrong direction. We were informed of our outsider status and told “Ya’ll don’t belong here.” A moment later, a shirtless man approached me from my right side, just on the edge of my vision. When I realized that I was being set up for a sucker-punch, I turned towards him and leaned in. Instead puffing up for a show down, I asked him: “Are you a Hatfield?”

The question took the resident by surprise, and instead of hitting me, the shirtless man stopped to think.

I then looked at the folks sitting on the car and said: “I am always looking for kin”

The tide changed in an instant and hostility turned to hospitality. We were offered beer and weed (we declined) but the conversation went on. The residents then informed us that they could not grow marijuana – let alone tomatoes – because people from the local factories used to “bury stuff” on the property. This was exactly the kind of critical information were searching for. Although we had previously run database searches, studied historical aerial photographs, looked over historic maps and even interviewed law enforcement, the Fire Chief and city officials, we had discovered nothing of significance. Once tipped off, I looked around and found the subtle cues in the land surface that supported this gentleman’s story. That conversation saved the client from buying a serious problem.

As for the line about the Hatfields... it was not a falsehood. My biological mother was actually of the historic Hatfield clan. 

Telephone interviews often require more time and allies. A client recently retained us to perform a Phase I Environmental Assessment on a property located in the southwest. The property was in a residential section of the town and consisted of some mobile home lots, a few cabins and an “office,” all of which had been vacant for years. The property had been developed in the 1920s with cabins and then mobile home lots added later. The architecture of the “office” and its location were suggestive of a vintage gas station. It was an adobe structure located on a street corner and was positioned at an angle, but state and federal databases had no records of a gas stations on the property. Local historic city directories also did not list a gas station for the address. So we turned to chatting folks up about the history of the property. We used a plausible cover story to disguise our true interest and went about talking with local folks. None of the public officials could tell us what we wanted to know, so we cast the net further out.

The oldest residents could not remember the property as a gas station; although at least two said they thought it might have been one at some time. The head of the local historical society would not answer my calls. When she saw our out-of-state phone number, she assumed it was a telemarketing or scam call. She had a land line with no voice mail or answering machine. I circled back to a party that I had spoken to previously and had developed some rapport with. I asked her to call the historian and tell her that my call was legitimate. When I did get to speak with the historian, it looked like a dead end until she recalled that someone had written a book about businesses in the area sometime in the 1950s. She did not have a copy but said there might be a copy at the library. I called the librarian who found it on the shelf. The librarian then was kind enough to search through the book while I was on the phone. She found a blurb about the property that included a photograph of the building showing the pumps along with an account of how the owners had helped people out during the Great Depression by selling gasoline on informal credit. The librarian took a photo of the page and sent it to me by text message. 

We loaded up our drilling gear and made the trip out to the property. We used the old photograph to find the location of the tank pit and former pump islands, installed borings and pulled samples. The site was clean and the client bought it and the question has now been resolved forever.

Conversations are a wonderful tool. 

In 37 years of doing Phase I Environmental Assessments I can say that most of the important discoveries we have made on such projects came through the interview process. The more you do it, the better your skills become. However, I must caution you that there is a risk in using this method... everyone has their story, and everyone has stories they want to tell. Everyone is actually fascinating when you get to know them. It is quite easy to find yourself drifting off course from the mission. Chatting with people to obtain information about a property can easily drift into... making new friends.

Talking to people is one of the many reasons why I truly love my work. I would pay to do this job.

Mike Renz
Mike is an aging rock climber, fanatical motorcyclist, former white collar worker and experienced hydrogeologist. A little over a quarter of century ago, he escaped from the corner office of a large engineering firm, dumped the suit & tie and started his own company. As hydrogeologists with decades of experience, Renz and his associates can look at a property and tell you with a very high degree of confidence if it’s likely to be contaminated or not. Renz & Associates, Inc. are both experts in Phase I Assessments as well as highly experienced in remediating contaminated sites. Got a question on environmental issues (or dinosaurs, volcanoes, glaciers, rocks, earthquakes etc)? Call Mike any time at (614) 538-0451. He would be delighted to chat with you.