Digging Deeply for the Story: Investigative Site Histories in Environmental Cases

by Joanne Parrent


Environmental cases generally involve finding answers to not simply scientific but also historical questions, such as:

  • What parties were located on the site and for what time periods?
  • What parties may have contaminated the site and when and how?
  • What neighboring companies may have caused contamination in the area?
  • Did any party doing damage to the site contract with the government?
  • What clean-up efforts, if any, were done by each party and what impact did those activities have?
  • What were the common environmental practices regarding each contaminant at the time the property was damaged?

Finding the answers to these types of questions and weaving those answers into a chronological narrative story of the land use of a particular site is a specialty of Parrent Smith Investigatons and Research. With investigators who have backgrounds in not only environmental cases, but specifically in historical research and writing, our clients can expect to receive a thoroughly researched and well-written narrative report on a site's history from the time it was simply unused raw land to the present, or for whatever time period the case requires.


A thorough investigative site history or, as they are often called, contributory source investigations, can often save the client large sums of money. There are a number of possible goals for either comprehensive or partial site histories, including:

. Find Additional Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs)

In every environmental case there is the possibility, if a thorough site history is not undertaken, that one or more PRPs will never be located and the client will be stuck with clean-up costs that would otherwise be shared with other PRPs. With a comprehensive history of the site, investigators are able to prepare a chronology listing every business or corporation that was ever located on the site and, if required, in the surrounding area.

. Find Current Owners of Former Site Polluters

Sometimes - generally after completing a site history - the next task is to find out who now owns a company that was once located on the site. In many cases, a Corporate Succession Chronology prepared by Parrent Smith investigators, following a succession of mergers and acquisitions will identify a PRP with deep pockets, oftentimes now located out of the area.

. Find Government Contract Information

In the process of preparing a comprehensive site history, investigators will also attempt to find out if any company located on the site may have worked under contract with the government. If so, the government may also share liability for the clean-up.

. Help Make Scientific Testing More Cost-Effective, Accurate and Clearer

When comprehensive site histories are done before scientific testing, the history can help scientists develop a more accurate and, therefore, more cost-effective plan for testing the site. Even when site histories are done after or concurrently with scientific testing, they are useful to scientists because they can often help explain results that might be otherwise puzzling or unexplainable.


Although every investigative site history or contributory source investigation will be different, counsel should understand the types of records that the investigator may be searching and the steps he or she will be taking in order to be assured that the work will be comprehensive. At PSIR, our first step is to meet with counsel to learn the goals and scope of the search and to obtain whatever information the attorney or client has already gathered. At this time we will discuss with the attorney our initial thoughts about the investigation and determine whether or not a search of the client records is likely to be fruitful (see below). After that meeting, we can devise our plan of attack for finding the most useful places to begin the search. Sometimes a thorough search of secondary sources that will help us develop a general chronology of the site should be undertaken before attempting to locate primary sources, such as those found in old client records or, if accessible, archives from other companies located on the site.

Some of the common primary and secondary sources we use in preparing investigative site histories include but are not limited to the following:

. Client records

In some cases a good early step in a historical investigation is a thorough search of the client or PRP's own records. Often, however, those records are incomplete, poorly indexed and may not contain as much relevant information as that available elsewhere. In other cases, client files are helpful and a review of such items as annual reports, correspondence in various relevant departments and other daily business records may be helpful. Company publications, such as newsletters and press releases should also be examined. Also, many companies keep photo archives and they should also be looked at because they may shed some visual light on changes that have taken place at the site during the company's tenure.

. Interviews with Company Employees

In addition to examining company records, some site histories can benefit greatly from interviews with employees and former employees, who may have knowledge of the company's practices and procedures in regard to the particular contaminant. These interviews, particularly when employees understand the importance of aiding the investigation, can sometimes uncover information not available in documents or can shed light on facts already found in written records.

. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Public records are often more fruitful in preparing a site history than internal records of the client company. One of the most important tools for urban historical research, available in many public libraries, are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps prepared by the Sanborn Map Company of New York. These atlases of American cities were originally created to inform fire insurance companies of risks in urban areas, but they ended up providing a record of this country's change from an agrarian society to a nation of cities. The atlases are available from the 1880's to 1970 in most areas, and they show changes from block to block like no other cartographic resource, giving us a record of what buildings and companies were on a particular site for over a century. Although Sanborn atlases do not identify owners of homes or businesses they do name most public buildings, show all structures on the lots and present streets in exact dimensions. In their original format, the maps provided color renderings showing building materials, structural qualities and special features that were coded by the hue, such as codes for apartments, family dwellings, fire hydrants, chimneys, car-houses, as well as identifying oil wells, sewer outlets, slaughterhouses, refineries or waste dumps that may have occupied a site in the past. The importance of such detail is extraordinarily helpful in site histories, particularly in finding materials and operations that might have caused the environmental contamination that is under investigation.

. Other Maps

Other maps of the area can also be helpful to an investigation and can often be found in libraries, historical societies or private collections. Historical U.S. Geological Survey Topographical Maps sometimes offer relevant data. In a recent case, in a private collection of an old business from the area, we found commissioned maps that indicated underground gas pipes from a much earlier decade that no one knew existed prior to the discovery.

. Business Records in Public or Private Archives

Many archival records of companies and individuals, such as owners and CEOs of companies, have been donated to public institutions, including public libraries, universities and historical societies. In a recent case, however, the records of two now extinct companies that were on the sites adjacent to our client were deposited in a private library. Our investigator obtained reading privileges at that library (generally only open to post-graduate scholars) in order to search those records. We were able to learn information about the land use in the area that helped our client reach a favorable settlement in the litigation in question.

. Historic Photographs in Public Archives

Libraries and historical societies located in the area in question often have large archives of photographs that are generally well indexed, making it easy to locate photos that might be relevant to a particular site history. Aerial Photographs, which can also be helpful, are collected at some libraries and they are usually indexed by Thomas Bros. Street Atlases.

. City Directories and Telephone Books

Libraries also usually have old city directories and telephone books, including yellow pages that can be used to find out when companies moved from certain sites. These directories can also be useful in attempting to find ex-employees or company officers.

. Newspapers

Major national newspapers and/or local newspapers are often great secondary sources for information about the companies at the site, the site itself and about environmental problems in the area. Newspapers also may have information about mergers and acquisitions of companies on the site.

. Trade Journals and Magazines

Trade Journals and business magazines can be searched for articles about the companies in question, as well as for information about general practices in the industry.

. Corporate Information Sources

There is a great deal of information available on public companies because they are required to file financial disclosure forms with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in regular intervals. Much of the recent information is available online, including Historic Annual Reports and 10-K's, usually from the 1990s. For older historical information, however, including companies that no longer exist because of mergers and acquisitions, there are books and directories in some public libraries such as Annual Guide to Stocks, Directory of Obsolete Securities and the International Directory of Company Histories. The Thomas Register also provides current information on more than 165,000 U.S. and Canadian manufacturers and some libraries have older versions of this book. There are many other sources of information on large public companies, including magazines and newspapers mentioned above.

. Government Regulatory Documents

These documents can often provide records of a company's past actions in regard to some of the questions disputed in the litigation.

. Government Contracts

Locating copies of government contracts, procurement policies or correspondence can help to substantiate claims of government liability in the clean-up or toxic tort claims. This dimension of a site history requires in-depth research in federal archives. If the site includes a manufacturing entity that was operating during World War II, for example, there is a good chance that careful research through the archived records of such war-time agencies as the War Production Board or the Defense Supplies Corporation could yield significant results.

. Other Government Publications

U.S. Government Printing Office, U.S. Government Patents & Trademark Office, the United Nations and State and Local governments issue a variety of reports on all types of issues that may provide important background information for a site history. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, published reports on the Port of Los Angeles every five years going back many decades. Our investigators found these reports extremely helpful in a recent case.

.Freedom of Information Requests

After other research has been completed, if we suspect that there are government documents that cannot be otherwise located, our research can help attorneys prepare a detailed FOIA request that is more likely to get quick results than a more general one.

. Property Deeds and Title Records The country recorders office will have these real estate documents, including chain of title documents, deeds, easements, leases, restrictions and covenants. Although these records are not always the most efficient way to determine a chronology of the site, they are strong evidence in a legal dispute.

. Zoning and Land Use Records

Zoning and Land Use Records can also provide very important information in attempting to find out environmental practices in the area, as well as site use.


Good investigators have a natural instinct to follow every lead and leave no stone unturned. When investigators also have experience in library and historical research, as Parrent Smith investigators do, the combination will give attorneys and their clients the assurance that a thorough and comprehensive site history will be done as efficiently as possible. Although paralegals and associates are trained in legal research, that work is very different from this type of intensive historical sleuthing. Because the job often requires not simply document or library research but often includes interviews with ex-employees and other individuals, investigators trained in historical research are often better suited than academically trained historians for this sensitive information gathering. Investigators are generally very adept at interviews and know how to put people at ease. Another advantage of using investigators in these cases is that they licensed by the state as investigators and their work for attorneys is completely confidential.

The information an investigator uncovers in seeking the answers to the historical questions posed by environmental cases may not always help the client in every case - and in those instances it does not need to be disclosed to the other side. In the overwhelming majority of cases, 11/22/2013 however, the comprehensive investigative site histories prepared by Parrent Smith investigators will help save client very significant amounts of money. When millions of dollars in clean-up costs are on the line, the question a PRP has to consider is - what will be the costs and consequences of not doing a comprehensive site history?

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