Orphan Sites: Why they exist and how we address them

No, we’re not talking about Orphan Annie here! If you have ever worked on an environmental site assessment (ESA), you may be familiar with the term “orphan site,” or may know it as an “unmapped site.” An orphan site is an environmental record from various state or federal databases that cannot be accurately mapped or “geocoded” based on the information provided by the data source. As environmental data providers, we collect and maintain datasets for the Phase I process. It is important that we use all tools available to us to map environmental records accurately when possible and, alternatively, clearly indicate relevant orphan sites for environmental professional (EP) review.

Ideally, all records would contain a valid address or latitude/longitude coordinates, a city name, zip code, and a site name. All of these elements combine to make the task of mapping these records more precise and alleviate any questions as to where the record belongs. However, when an environmental record is reported there is often only a limited amount of information made available from the data source. Sometimes this means only the address is recorded without a city name or zip code; other times, only the site name and a zip code are provided. When an environmental record is lacking spatial information, it can be difficult to identify the actual property where the record is located.

In these cases, we use all of the information and resources at our disposal in order to correctly map the site. This is where things get interesting! Sometimes, our mapping professionals will use the “Street View” feature on Google Maps or view aerial imagery at a 45 degree angle using Bing or Google, which provides a localized and unique perspective of an area. However, these tools are not always available or helpful. Other times, the only information provided that can help identify a record’s location is the name of the site itself. When that is the case, we search the web in order to hunt down any clues as to the whereabouts of the current or historical property. There are times when we can locate a phone number for the business but not a valid address. What to do? At Banks, we pick up the phone and call the business in order to determine the true location. The mapping process becomes particularly tricky when a site is located in an area that has recently been entirely redeveloped, causing any site address or site name associated with the record to be ineffective. When this is the case, we have to put to use all of the research methods mentioned above.

When we are unable to map a particular record using these methods, we then classify the record as an orphan site. We make sure to include these orphan sites in our reports if we perceive that the record could fall somewhere within the study area based on the limited information provided by the source. These records are then set aside for EPs to review and make note of in their Phase I reports, indicating whether or not they believe the record is pertinent to their site area. EPs can determine relevance based on the site visits they perform and other research they collect when conducting the ESA.

At Banks, we pride ourselves on our unique method of analyzing orphan sites and our ability to identify true locations for records that otherwise may be overlooked by other data providers. In the end, we strive to only publish orphan sites that are relevant to target properties and the surrounding areas, while still providing a very comprehensive environmental database search.

environmental dataMeghan Juedeman

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