Reconstructing the Ownership History of a Contaminated Site

When it comes to environmental litigation involving polluted industrial sites, the presence of potentially responsible parties (PRPs), the production process of hazardous substances, and the degree of federal government involvement can all be significant factors. As historical researchers, we have the capability to unearth such information and reconstruct the history of a contaminated site on behalf of law firms, corporations, or communities.

In a recent case, we conducted research to identify all the parties that historically owned and/or operated on a former industrial site that spanned multiple city blocks. The client requested this service to determine the existence of PRPs that may have contributed to the metals and semivolatile organic compounds (SVOC) contamination of the soil and groundwater, and may therefore bear liability for state-mandated clean-up efforts.

We began our research efforts by broadening our knowledge of the area of interest through a review of city directories and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Sanborn Maps, which were created for fire insurance liability purposes and date back to 1866, track the changing landscape and property uses of approximately 12,000 American cities and towns. Meanwhile, historical city directories often contain street listings and business sections that identify the goods a company manufactured as well as their street address. Combined, these two resources enabled us to begin tracing the evolution of our client’s property.

  Excerpt from a 1921 Sanborn map of Concord, North Carolina. Sanborns are often quite detailed when it comes to industrial sites: on this map each building within the featured cotton mill is labelled. Please note that the site portrayed in this map was selected at random, and is not associated with any research that TRG has performed.  Photo credit: The Trackside Photographer

Excerpt from a 1921 Sanborn map of Concord, North Carolina. Sanborns are often quite detailed when it comes to industrial sites: on this map each building within the featured cotton mill is labelled. Please note that the site portrayed in this map was selected at random, and is not associated with any research that TRG has performed. Photo credit: The Trackside Photographer

Despite their level of detail, Sanborn Maps are not comprehensive sources of information, as they were typically only published once every five to ten years, and not all land owners allowed access to their property. Similarly, city directories cannot be relied upon as sources of complete accuracy.

It is therefore critical for us to utilize additional resources to further understand the history of any property we conduct research on. These resources often come from collections available at the state and local level. We determine which city offices and local repositories to visit on a project-by-project basis, taking into account factors such as the location of a site, the type of contamination present, and the time period of interest. Before embarking on a research trip, we conduct remote internet and phone inquiries to pinpoint the location of relevant material.

For this project, the county clerk’s collection of land deeds proved to be our most informative local source.  As our client requested a comprehensive history of all the companies who had owned or operated on the property, our search encompassed deeds from the late 1800s, the point in which the area of interest began industrializing. Our review of the property deeds allowed us to track the site’s conversion from residential to industrial, and identify the dozen or so entities that subsequently owned, leased, or operated on the site throughout the first half of the 20th century.

In addition, within federal repositories in the Washington, D.C. area, we gained access to local histories, newspapers, databases and periodicals that contained company annual reports, industrial histories, product advertisements, and corporate succession information. At the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA) at College Park, we collected documentation of wartime contracts between on-site companies and the government. As the area of interest is near a railroad, we also collected Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) railroad maps that identify property lines and owners adjacent to the rail line. As anticipated, materials from these Washington, D.C. area repositories provided us with valuable details regarding the activities of the historical owners and operators.

While each of these sources individually contain important information about a polluted industrial site’s history, multiple sources and various types of documentation must be used to piece together a complete picture. TRG team members are experts in identifying repositories that hold such records of interest as well as in collecting and analyzing relevant historical documentation for law firms in pursuit of site reconstruction efforts. To learn more about our research services related to environmental litigation, please refer to our research services page or contact us.