Cell tower builders have specific requirements for environmental due diligence that go beyond doing a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment.
Telecommunications towers are regulated by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Any government development project is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which requires a review of a project’s potential impacts to several environmental and cultural factors which are not typically covered by a Phase 1 ESA. Thus, during cell tower site selection, a NEPA review is typically done in conjunction with the Phase 1 Environmental. This requires that the Phase 1 ESA inspector is also appropriately qualified and trained to assess NEPA items, so that you aren’t paying for two people to visit the site.
A NEPA/FCC Review looks at:
- Wilderness areas
- Wildlife preserves
- Endangered and threatened species
- Designated critical habitats
- Historic places
- Native American religious sites
- Flood plains
- Wetlands and surface features
- High intensity white lights
- Radio frequency radiation
One common challenge with cell tower due diligence is the historic/religious places review, which includes consultation with State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPOs) to identify any historic or religious places that might be impacted by the development of a wireless tower. This process, which also includes a public notice and response period, can take up to several months so proactive and effective communication with the SHPOs and THPOs is crucial.
If a potential adverse impact to one of the above items is identified, further assessment might be required in the form of a red balloon test (balloon put up to demonstrate the place and height of the tower), an archeological survey, informal biological assessment, or a more comprehensive NEPA Environmental Assessment.
And, as with any normal Phase 1 ESA, if a recognized environmental condition is identified, a Phase 2 Subsurface Investigation may be recommended to evaluate potential contamination of the soil or groundwater.
Other projects like “in-building” installations of distributed antenna systems and collocations (where an antenna is added to an existing structure) often require sampling to determine if asbestos or lead paint are present because the building materials will be disturbed during installation. This is particularly important with older structures and painted towers (built pre-1981) that were built before these substances were banned.
If any potential issues are identified, swift communication with the client is paramount so they can promptly decide whether to find another site or to pursue further assessment.