The True Cost of Hiring a Big-Name Environmental Firm


It’s an ongoing problem we see all the time… one that cost this particular company over $250,000 and years of hassle.We received an urgent call from a potential client, who had purchased a property that was a consumer packaging facility. As part of the initial due diligence work, the Phase I Environmental Assessment identified some environmental issues, which triggered a Phase II Assessment. The latter investigation found chlorinated solvent contamination in soil and groundwater.

But the result left the original consultant, a big name firm, scratching their heads; where was the chlorinated solvent contamination coming from? The answer was that they hadn’t been thorough enough. They didn’t sufficiently research the history of the facility, thus they didn’t find out it had used those solvents decades prior.

In any case, this kicked off regulatory-required investigation and remediation. But that lack of knowledge about the cause of the contamination seriously hampered their efforts… and I mean seriously.

This story started in the early 2000s. But when we got involved in 2017 the original firm was still trying to figure things out, billing the client to the tune of approximately $200,000 while the state regulators grew impatient with the lack of progress.

What took them so long? In a nutshell, junior-level consultants bungled the project. And I’m sick and tired of seeing companies waste money like this.

Here’s the deal: although many insist on hiring “prestigious” national firms, often it is not necessarily the best choice for your environmental project. 

The relationship starts out wonderfully. The firm brings in the “big guns” – the firm’s principals – to the meeting and ”wows” the client.

But that’s the last time the client ever sees them. The team that actually shows up on the job site are… junior-level consultants. The firm is nationwide and its senior-level and experienced personnel may be stretched thin. Plus, they might have sent in a lowball offer to get the project, so they have to save on personnel costs.

These inexperienced consultants often do a mediocre job—not from lack of effort or good intention, but because they’ve just not been around long enough nor seen enough different sites to know the right questions to ask. They’re simply following a generic checklist when they investigate the site. And they don’t have the experience needed to figure things out when it’s not straightforward.

That’s why we were called in on this particular project – to formulate a plan to get it done. Possible enforcement from regulators – with penalties – was on the horizon.

When a consultant comes into a new project they should closely look at the current and past practices at the site, do thorough interviews of the facility managers and employees, and conduct assessments, which may include sampling and testing.

For us, it actually took about 20 minutes to discover that chlorinated solvents had been used at the site back in the 1990s and to determine where they were used onsite. We just talked with the facility’s long-time employees,  (which the previous consultant had never done) and they told us.

They also didn’t have a good relationship with regulators. Many consultants take a “we know best” approach. But we met with the regulators, identified gaps in the previous work, and showed them the proposed investigation/remediation plan we had put together.

Afterwards, the state told us how refreshing it was to see a consultant actually utilize site history and all of the collected sampling data to develop a conceptual model of what is going on at the site in order to put together such a comprehensive plan.

Our client avoided enforcement penalties and we are currently implementing our investigation/remediation plan.  Although we are now on the path to remediating the site, our client wasted a lot of time and money by using the previous consulting company.

Cost Versus Value

Clients sometimes complain in these situations, saying they already paid so much money to what they thought was the best firm.

It stays unspoken that if they hired us in the first place, they wouldn’t have found themselves in this situation.

That’s the other big lesson here. When looking at the cost of hiring a particular company for a project – you can’t just look at the price they quote or the big-name they have on their letterhead. You have to know the value of their work.

I’ll admit, Envision Environmental, Inc. is often not the least expensive option (on paper) – and we’ve lost many proposals because of it. But we do offer real value and do a thorough job – the first time. That’s value.

The Question that Revealed Everything

I’ll never forget it.

We were in the car with a representative from a major environmental consulting firm heading to our client’s facility.  Our client was in the process of selling their business and the representative from the major  firm was representing a potential buyer as part of due diligence. Our client requested that we accompany the consultant in order to address any questions and to document the due diligence process.

That’s when the rep turned and asked us, “What’s plastic extrusion and injection molding?”

We thought that was an odd question to ask considering that the facility we were visiting made lipstick tubes, compact cases, and other plastic products used for cosmetics – plastic extrusion and injection molding are the key elements of that manufacturing process.

This consultant from a major national firm was heading to a job site and didn’t know the first thing about the facility they were visiting to conduct an extremely critical service – environmental due diligence to determine potential risks and liabilities for its client prior to purchasing the business and property.

How was he supposed to be effective at his job and produce a good result for the client?

We’re different.

We do the research, look at the current practices and property history, examine historical environmental work, and fall back on our 20+ years of experience to figure out the problem, its source, and how to fix it as affordably and quickly as possible. 

As I mentioned before, another key part to our approach is communication – with the client and their managers and employees, of course. But also with regulators – you have to make them happy.

That reminds me of a project another big-name firm did in New Jersey – another project that we ultimately had to take over. The client and earlier consultant had received a 45-page deficiency letter from the regulators on the investigation and remediation activities conducted on the property.

A standout deficiency identified by the regulators  was that the big-name firm had provided a groundwater model for a different site – a model for a gas station in another county was submitted in the report that proposed the remedial action for the subject property. It was like a high school kid doing a book report the night before it was due.

Our approach when we took over the project was to get a meeting with the regulators. We showed them we understood the issues and we laid out our approach. Communication. We got the case moving forward towards remediation without going to enforcement.

When Bad Work Costs You Money

In the first case I told you about, incompetent work led to a client paying for years of work with no result. But sometimes just plain shoddy work can also cost you money.

We had one client call us awhile back. They had sold a site in Tennessee 20 years prior. The property had changed hands a few times. But the newest buyer had done Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments with a national, big-name firm.

Chlorinated solvent contamination had been found in the groundwater and soil on the site. The new owners said our client was responsible for the contamination and filed a lawsuit.

We reviewed the work the national firm had done. Long story short, they had installed the monitoring wells incorrectly. We installed our own wells and discovered that a portion of the property was being impacted by offsite contamination coming onto the property.  Our clients were not responsible for the contamination on that portion of the site and that significantly reduced their exposure. 

How to Get the Best Firm for Your Project

When you have an environmental, health or safety issue on your hands, it’s a stressful time. You want the best help you can get.

But beware of the “big” name. Just because it’s a well-known national firm doesn’t mean it’s the best solution to your problems.

We’ve come up with a way to help you determine the quality of service environmental firms you contact will provide when taking on your project.

You can download 5 Things to Ask an Environmental Consultant Before You Hire Them here.


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