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Learn about a brownfield site: Environmental site assessment (ESA), buying, selling, developing, or investigating

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Photo of a construction equipment pulling up an underground storage tank from large hole
The Portland Brownfield Program provides technical assistance to anyone who is interested in learning more about a brownfield within Portland or who is working on a project on property where contamination might be an issue. Find resources on this page.
On this page

Before buying, selling, or developing a brownfield

A property is considered a brownfield if contamination, or the possibility of contamination, is interfering with its reuse. If your property is potentially contaminated, you will have difficulty financing, developing, or selling it for its full value until you perform an environmental site assessment. If you want to purchase or use a potentially contaminated site, an environmental site assessment will help you understand how to address any environmental issues that could interfere with your plans. Most lenders, developers, and purchasers will ask for an environmental site assessment on any commercial or industrial site. 

An assessment will give you information about the history and current condition of your property so that you can make informed decisions and move forward with your plans.

Conducting an environmental site assessment

What is the process?

If there are questions about a site's history or possible contamination, the first step is a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment. For Phase I, a contractor will research the past and present uses of the site, review existing environmental studies, and conduct a preliminary site inspection to establish the likelihood of contamination. This investigation will determine whether or not further assessment is necessary.

Photo shows hands in blue latex gloves putting soil into jars for testing.
A Phase II environmental site assessment will include soil, water and/or soil gas sampling.

If the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment identifies "recognized environmental conditions," a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment will be recommended. This step involves sampling the soil, water, and/or soil gas to identify the type and extent of contaminants.

A Phase II assessment is tailored to the property's specific conditions and intended future uses. It will determine whether or not cleanup activities are necessary.

Is it expensive?

Brownfield assessment and cleanup can be expensive. However, it is necessary for protecting human and environmental health, and for avoiding surprises and delays in your project. The only way to find out if a site is free of contamination or how to restore it to a usable condition is to perform an environmental site assessment.

How long will it take?

A full environmental site assessment (Phases I and II) can take several months, but it is a worthwhile investment of time compared to the risk of buying a site with unknown contamination or finding contamination on a property when a project is already underway.

How can the Portland Brownfield Program help?

The Portland Brownfield Program can provide technical and, in some cases, financial assistance for environmental site assessments. Even if you are not interested in or eligible for financial assistance, the Brownfield Program can answer questions about:

  • A potential brownfield site in your neighborhood
  • Buying or selling a brownfield
  • The regulatory process (including No Further Action Letters and Prospective Purchaser agreements)
  • Available funding
  • Gardening on urban sites
  • Environmental assessments
  • Other questions related to contaminated land

Financial assistance options through the program

The program currently administers a Community-wide Assessment Grant of $500,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that provides financial assistance for environmental site assessments and cleanup planning on eligible projects. Projects that support affordable, shelter, or transitional housing are the focus of this current grant, but other projects with community benefits may be considered.

For more information or to apply for financial assistance, visit the Apply for a Brownfield Grant page.

Two photos: At left, in black and white, a photo of an empty field. At right, in color, same field but now a community garden space.
This vacant parcel of land in Northeast Portland was next to a former landfill. A local nonprofit transformed the site into a community garden. The Portland Brownfield Program assisted with the environmental site assessment and soil testing, which revealed clean soil safe for gardening.

Other resources to research properties and brownfields