Historical Research: Its Role in Environmental Due Diligence Prior to Business Transactions

A recent article from Thompson Coburn LLP that provided tips for environmental due diligence for buyers in business transactions caught our attention. Why? Conducting research into historical environmental problems is one of our specialties at Taylor Research Group.

Typically, our services are requested by law firms representing businesses identified as Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP) in Superfund or other environmental cases.* For example, we’ve conducted research into a wide range of businesses and industrial interests, such as oil and gas sites, metal and oil refineries, manufactured gas plants, mines, former gas stations, and dry cleaners. But, as the Thompson Coburn LLP article points out, historical research could also be a critical component prior to business transactions involving likely environmental liabilities.

We work closely with attorneys to accomplish the often times complex task of understanding environmental issues stemming from various kinds of businesses and industrial sites.  Our expertise is in diving deep into the public records domain to unearth crucial information not routinely identified as part of environmental site assessments. Such information reveals past incidents of spills or contamination and related clean-up efforts, including on and/or off-site waste disposal practices. It can also provide insight into the operations and activities of current and/or previous business owners or site occupants as well as identify hazardous or toxic materials, whether structural or chemical, still present at sites in question.

Depending on the needs of our client, we implement a targeted or phased approach to the environmental research projects we take on. Targeted efforts may just focus on one specific repository or several records collections of interest, whereas phased approaches are much more comprehensive.

For a phased approach, we begin at the federal level and work our way down to state then local levels. Repositories such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hold a wealth of information and resources such as the Industrial Arts and Science & Technology indices, Sanborn fire insurance maps, or the National Union Catalog to Manuscripts Collections. By utilizing these, we’re able to begin to understand corporate and site histories and business practices, which allows us to then target other repositories that may hold records of potential interest for our clients.

At the state level, we typically focus on state archives and libraries as well as environmental protection agencies and health departments. These repositories may house annual reports of businesses, environmental files such as inspection reports or site investigations, not to mention court case files related to businesses and properties of interest. Similarly, at the local level, we focus on county clerks, borough and public works offices, and even building and fire departments that may have interacted with or overseen businesses or sites of interest over time.  We often discover records that detail spills or leaks (including volumetric information) or regulatory actions taken against businesses for environmental infractions, whether one-off incidents or those that have occurred repeatedly over time. Additionally, we may find site overviews as well as demolition and construction records.

Locating appropriate collections like those identified above and gaining access to them is a highly complicated task that requires frequent travel to archival repositories to mine databases and dig through dusty old Bankers Boxes. The records needed often sit untouched and forgotten about in basements, attics, or even the closets of government agencies. Sometimes, we find it necessary to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and/or Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests if more recent records of interest are not currently accessible in the public domain. This is why our researchers hold Master’s degrees in history and information science and are thoroughly trained to navigate the seemingly disparate world of public records. We know how invaluable such records collections are to understanding historical and potential environmental liabilities for businesses and their attorneys.

If you are a business or environmental attorney currently involved in conducting environmental due diligence prior to a business transaction, please reach out to us for more information about how we can complement your research strategy and efforts via info@taylorresearchgroup.com.

*Please look for our upcoming blog post that will specifically focus on Superfund cases and our related research.