Cemeteries: Toxins' Final Resting Place

11/22/2019 - Blog

When considering potential environmental hazards at a property, there’s one that might surprise you: cemeteries.

Environmental contaminants are a crucial factor to consider when purchasing a property. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)--passed by Congress in 1980--established measures to determine liable parties in the event of an environmental hazard. Liable parties fall into one of four classes:

1. The current owner or operator of the site;

2. The owner or operator of a site at the time that disposal of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant occurred;

3. A person who arranged for the disposal of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant at a site;

4. A person who transported a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant to a site, who also has selected that site for the disposal of the hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants.

If found liable, any of these parties could be burdened with the costs of remediation, a potentially expensive process that can significantly impact the value of an investment. Even if a current owner did not cause the contamination, they could still be found liable, highlighting the importance of Phase I Environmental Site Assessments. A Phase I ESA can help protect an owner from contamination-related liability, as these reports offer insight into the presence of any potential contamination.

“Red flags” indicate the potential for environmental contamination on a given site. While some red flags are more common and therefore more understood, others can be surprising. One such non-standard red flag is the existence of a cemetery.

Cemeteries have been woven into the fabric of our society. In 2018, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reported that 40.5% of Americans are buried after their death; these burials occur across more than 20,000 cemeteries nationwide. Because their existence is so engrained in our social fabric, it is peculiar to think that cemeteries may very well be contributing to environmental contamination.

So, what is the environmental impact of cemetery burial?

  • Formaldehyde: During the embalming process, formaldehyde and other chemicals are pumped throughout the body. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and while the EPA regulates it as hazardous waste, each embalmed body contains roughly three gallons of the chemical. These chemicals are then eventually introduced into the soil through decomposition of the coffin and body.
  • Arsenic: Up to 1910, arsenic was used in the embalming process, a potentially fatal chemical if ingested. Due to its composition, arsenic does not break down as the body decomposes, and is likely to remain in the soil indefinitely.
  • Coffins: Coffins themselves can pose potential environmental threats; steel coffins eventually corrode, and wooden ones likely contain the preservative CCA, which also contains arsenic. Many ornamental finishes or paints contain heavy metals such as lead, copper, arsenic, and chromium. OSHA lists all of these as toxic metals hazardous to humans. One study found cemetery soil contained eight times the metal concentrations compared to soil offsite, specifically minerals used in the manufacturing of coffins.

Studies of the environmental threats posed by cemeteries are relatively new; there is still much to be learned about exactly how cemeteries play a role in environmental contamination. The uncertainty surrounding this impact more than justifies the investment in a Phase 1 ESA; these are designed to identify any nearby cemeteries, or if the site itself was once a burial site.

With 30 years’ experience assisting clients in completing real estate transactions, EBI Consulting has experience evaluating a broad range of properties and getting stakeholders the information they need to make the best business decisions. Contact us today to find out how we can help you close your deal.


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