As a property manager, no matter whether you oversee a shopping plaza, office complex, warehouse site, hotel, apartment complex, or industrial or manufacturing facility, you have to watch out for a variety of environmental, health and safety (EH&S) issues.
The simple fact is that the property owner has hired you to manage the entire property and expects you to keep an eye on all potential EH&S exposures from your own operations and areas, as well as those of the other tenants.
For this article, we’ll be focusing on potential environmental liabilities you should look out for. We’re talking about dry cleaning chemicals, stored cleaners and solvents in the janitor’s closet, cooking grease and oil from restaurants, and exterior storage of materials, among many other potential issues.
Any number of things could result in compliance issues with local, state, and even federal regulators. Violations can result in costly enforcement actions, fines and penalties, and other costs.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many EH&S issues that often go overlooked at properties that have the potential for significant exposures and liabilities.
Things to Keep in Mind
There are a few key factors to keep in mind when considering environmental issues as a property manager:
- Environmental issues can be caused by current operations, whether it is hazardous materials used in a manufacturing process or stored onsite, toxic mold from a poorly maintained HVAC system, or even everyday cleaning products used by janitorial staff but stored, used, or disposed of improperly.
- Environmental issues can also be “leftovers” from previous tenants, property owners, and/or property managers. Impacts from decades ago could affect your site today.
- Environmental issues from neighboring sites could have impacted your property. So don’t always assume it’s your fault.
- Environmental regulations are always changing. So what wasn’t a violation in the past, could be today. You have to stay on top of things as best you can.
- Environmental impacts to soil and groundwater aren’t the only types of exposures to watch out for. Indoor air quality is also vitally important as it could significantly affect the health of workers and occupants at your sites.
A Quick Case Study
Not too long ago, we received a call from a facility for help with stormwater management. It seems every time it rained, the back of the property would flood, causing damage to their site. During our investigation, we noted that they had enough stormwater catch basins to accommodate rainfall even during torrential downpours.
We also noticed that pallets piled high with bags of cement were stored out back, many of which were staged next to these catch basins. Upon closer inspection of the stored cement bags, we could see that many of the bags were ripped open. On windy days, the wind would carry the cement dust all over the property with a good deal of it settling into the catch basins. What happens when you combine cement mix dust with water? You get hardened cement. This facility’s management of their exterior storage of cement bags was the reason why their property flooded. The hardened cement plugged up the catch basins so they could not drain.
Something as simple, and easy to overlook as that caused a major headache. That brings us to some of the most common overlooked environmental issues for property managers.
Stormwater runoff is one of the most important environmental issues to consider because it can be caused by many different scenarios and can have a tremendous impact very quickly, affecting not only your property, but also other nearby properties.
On construction sites, say for an addition to your property, debris, dirt, and more from the work can enter the stormwater system and impact nearby surface water. Take steps to contain the potential contaminants.
Another issue that pops up often is that underground storage tanks, underground utility lines or other subsurface structures can be hit when doing any type of excavating at your property. Make sure you call in a utility markout prior to any type of digging at your property – it’s required by law. In addition, we always recommend that a private utility locator be hired to identify any subsurface structures that a public utility markout may not look for.
Backup generators, which often come with above-ground fuel storage tanks, can also be a source of contamination. Usually, the issue comes up when there is an accidental release during refueling. Without a Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) Plan to guide personnel and control such an issue, that released fuel may impact stormwater and end up wherever your stormwater is discharged to, including surface water bodies.
Indoor air quality is a watchword these days, especially in office buildings and multifamily residential buildings. There are several potential indoor air quality issues: mold in the ventilation and AC systems, lead-based paint, chemicals off gassing from building materials, carbon monoxide from heaters and furnaces, pesticides, vapor intrusion from subsurface contamination, and asbestos. When it comes to indoor air quality, it is important to assess the issue as soon as you become aware of it so that it can be addressed and resolved before it becomes a major exposure.
While impacts to soil and groundwater are something of a given at industrial sites, don’t forget that something as simple as a retail store could have such issues… depending on what they sell. Many dry cleaners have caused significant soil and groundwater contamination as a result of their management practices for dry cleaning solvents, especially perchloroethylene.
Some major home improvement stores have received stormwater violations, due to their management of exterior stored materials like fertilizers and building materials. And many major retail stores have been significantly fined by the USEPA for improper management of hazardous wastes such as batteries, paints, solvents, etc.
It’s clear that any number of environmental exposures could lead to serious headaches for you as a property manager… and a big financial loss. Not to mention, you could have trouble attracting future tenants… and even be out of a job.
We’ve really only scratched the surface here concerning potential EH&S issues. A great way to move forward to address them is to get in touch with your tenants and ask them some pointed questions about their operations to help you identify potential liabilities. You should ask the same questions of potential new tenants.
We’ve put together a short checklist that can guide your questioning. It’s a free download here: Environmental Liabilities Checklist for Property Managers
If you’d like further information on potential EH&S issues that property managers face, or if you need help with any current EH&S issues, please call me now at (609) 208-1885 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a phone consultation.