top of page

How to Find Out if a Property is Contaminated

Photo of a person with blue medical gloves and a face mask using tweezers to pull a piece of plastic off of the ground on dirt ground

Discovering that a property may be contaminated can be a troubling revelation for any property owner, investor, or real estate agent. It raises significant health concerns, legal complications, and potentially hefty financial burdens for remediation. This guide aims to unveil the essential steps and considerations for identifying if a property is contaminated. Whether it stems from chemical spills, underground storage tank leaks, or residues from industrial processes, understanding the origins, implications, and detection methods of property contamination is key to navigating this complex issue. By arming yourself with the right knowledge and resources, you can make informed decisions and take appropriate actions to ensure the safety and integrity of your property or property that you're interested in purchasing.

What is Contaminated Land?

Although there are various environmental risks in the real estate industry, contaminated land refers to any area that has been polluted by its past industrial use or by the disposal of wastes. Contaminated land represents a significant challenge in the U.S., particularly as the decline of heavy industry has led to the repurposing of former industrial sites as prime real estate in urban centers. There is a growing necessity for comprehensive environmental site assessments that evaluate the nature and extent of contamination prior to formulating an effective remediation strategy.

What are Some Examples of Land Contamination?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land contamination can result from a variety of intended, accidental, or naturally occurring activities and events such as manufacturing, mineral extraction, abandonment of mines, national defense activities, waste disposal, accidental spills, illegal dumping, leaking underground storage tanks, hurricanes, floods, pesticide use, and fertilizer application.

Across the nation, thousands of contaminated sites exist, varying in size and importance, located in diverse settings from deserted urban buildings to extensive regions tainted by toxic substances from historical industrial or mining operations.

Some examples of land contamination include:

  • Sites contaminated by improper handling or disposal of toxic and hazardous materials and wastes

  • Sites where toxic materials may have been deposited as a result of natural disasters or acts of terror

  • Sites where improper handling or accidents resulted in the release of toxic or hazardous materials

What are the Types of Contaminated Land?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified numerous categories of contaminated land, classifying sites according to the severity and nature of the contamination. Additionally, the regulatory framework overseeing the monitoring and remediation of these sites plays a crucial role in their classification.

  • Superfund Sites: These locations are heavily contaminated and encompass a variety of areas, including industrial plants, waste management facilities, and sites affected by mining activities. Superfund sites include federal properties like deserted mines; facilities for producing nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional weapons; as well as industrial sites on military bases used for the maintenance of aircraft and naval ships. LandApp provides the location of Superfund sites across the country:

Screenshot of LandGate's Map overlayed with the location of Superfund sites across the country

  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) cleanup facilities: These facilities are subject to cleanup under RCRA due to past or current treatment, storage, or disposal of hazardous wastes and have historical releases of contamination.

  • Underground storage tanks/leaking underground storage tanks: Businesses, industrial facilities, gas stations, and various organizations often store petroleum and hazardous substances in extensive underground tanks. These tanks can sometimes fail due to substandard materials, improper installation, flawed operating practices, or inadequate maintenance, leading to soil and groundwater contamination. LandApp also provides the exact location of underground tanks.

  • Accidental spill sites: An accidental spill site refers to a location where hazardous materials were spilled due to a variety of different types of incidents.

  • Sites contaminated by natural disasters or terrorist activities: Human-caused or natural disasters can lead to land contamination and exacerbate issues at sites already polluted.

  • Land contaminated with radioactive & other hazardous materials: Numerous locations across a vast expanse of land in the United States have been contaminated with radioactive substances and other hazardous materials due to nuclear weapons production, testing, and research activities.

  • Brownfields: Brownfields are properties whose expansion, redevelopment, or reuse is often hindered by the real or potential presence of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. 

  • Military bases and defense sites: Millions of acres managed by the Department of Defense are tainted due to hazardous substance leaks, discarded munitions and unexploded ordnance, alongside rubble from demolished structures. Similarly, in pursuit of its defense mission, the Department of Energy oversees several facilities compromised by hazardous chemical and radioactive substance leaks.

  • PCB-Contaminated Sites: Before the implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) saw extensive use across various commercial sectors. This led to significant contamination due to spills, releases, and the utilization and disposal of PCB-containing products.

  • Abandoned and inactive mines and oil wells: Abandoned and inactive mines and oil wells often lack proper cleanup and can include features from exploratory holes to extensive, large-scale mine openings, pits, waste heaps, and processing facilities.

Buying Contaminated Property

As the demand for industrial and commercial real estate continues to grow nationwide, the challenge of finding large, well-located parcels of land for industrial and warehouse construction is becoming increasingly apparent. This scarcity has led to a notable shift in market behavior; buyers and investors are beginning to consider properties with environmental concerns—options they would have previously avoided due to the risks involved and the caution advised by lenders. Additionally, there are various tax incentives available for Superfund redevelopment that are intriguing buyers and developers across the county.

To safeguard real estate purchasers from the pitfalls of acquiring contaminated lands, several legislative measures have been implemented. These laws not only aim to protect buyers but also mandate the cleanup of contaminated sites prior to their sale or development. This legislative framework plays a crucial role in preventing potential harm to millions from environmental hazards.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is at the forefront of enforcing these regulations and ensuring the remediation of affected properties. Additionally, these laws offer protection to homeowners living on inadvertently contaminated land. The EPA's website serves as a comprehensive resource for accessing these legislative details and identifying opportunities for community engagement. It’s a valuable tool for any buyer, seller, or real estate agent navigating this landscape.

Approaching a property that’s situated on or near a designated Superfund site, a former municipal landfill, or land potentially tainted with unreclaimed chemicals presents a complex challenge. Each site will have its unique complications and hurdles. However, a range of risk management strategies can assist in evaluating the feasibility of such acquisitions, ensuring buyers can make informed decisions while tackling the inherent risks of contaminated properties.

How to Find out if a Property is Contaminated

Whether you currently own land or property or are interested in buying land or property, understanding a property's contamination risk is critical. The most thorough method of finding a property's contamination risk is to get a formal Phase 1 Report. The Environmental Site Assessment process (Phase One Environmental Site Assessment) is based on a national standard for assessing, investigating and providing cleanup services for a real estate holding, which may have potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities. The analysis typically addresses both the underlying land as well as physical improvements to the property.

Although it does not replace a formal Phase 1 report, researching land with LandApp is a great precursor to getting this report by identifying contaminated land. With LandApp, you can pinpoint the location of every Superfund Site, abandoned oil and gas well, and contaminated site in the nation. You can hover over each contaminated site for more information:

Screenshot of Contaminated Site data on LandGate's map

More information about potentially contaminated properties can be found in LandGate's property reports. Along with a specific property's proximity to nearby contaminated sites, you can also find the type of contaminant, the contaminant's chemical properties, remediation status, and more with the click of a button.

Screenshot of Contamination chemicals list in LandGate's property report

Without a LandApp subscription, you can create 1 free property report. With LandApp, you can create an unlimited number of property reports. For nationwide contamination data, subscribe for just $10 per month when billed annually or $16 per month when billed monthly:


bottom of page