Five Things to Know Before Choosing an Environmental Consultant

From the Desk of Pete Barts, President, HSA Golden How does one choose an environmental consultant? Back in the day, it used to be that you’d open up the Yellow Pages, pick a couple of good-looking ads, and make some calls. Or, better yet, you’d call a friend or acquaintance for a referral. Now, with Google/Yahoo/Bing at your fingertips, your choices have gone up exponentially, but narrowing the selection process is just as difficult, if not more so. The environmental consultant you choose may determine the success – or failure – of a project, and you need to spend the time and effort required to find the “right fit” for your circumstance. Below are five things you should ask of a prospective environmental consultant before signing a contract. The list is by no means all-inclusive, but it should help distill the field down to one or two firms that will be the right fit for you.

  1. Local knowledge: There are many multinational firms with a large footprint and an impressive array of staff. However, if they haven’t worked with the local regulatory folks or aren’t familiar with the the nuances of geological or environmental conditions in your area, you may be paying for a steep learning curve. Find a firm that’s been working in the area of your project site for a while, or make sure they team with a firm that brings a local presence.
  2. Firm Experience: This one goes without saying. Pay more attention to the experience of the staff than the age of the firm. Generally speaking, a firm that’s been around for a while, with a consistent or growing staff, speaks volumes as to stability and reputation. Also, check references so that you can verify that the firm has a proven track record, and most importantly, that the consultant has executed – and delivered as promised – for their clients in the past.
  3. Specific Technical Expertise: After narrowing down a list of qualified firms from searches or referrals, you should review the resumes for staff that will be assigned to your project. Beyond that, you may wish to obtain, in writing, a listing of those individuals which will be performing both the day-to-day tasks as well as project management and oversight work. Just having competent people on staff does nothing for you if they’re not assigned to your project.
  4. Deliverables: Prior to the submission of correspondence which makes commitments on your behalf, always review drafts of these documents in detail. Discuss the ramifications of these commitments (time, money, hassle, etc.) with your consultant, and see if it’s possible to request more favorable long-term requirements (such as semiannual rather than quarterly groundwater quality monitoring, for instance) from regulators. This is very important and is often overlooked, as many times the client will rely too much on their consultant to make often-standard recommendations. Of course, a history of meeting deadlines for deliverables is important too, but it’s better to request (and receive approval for) time extensions rather than rush a report that recommends unfavorable, or less-than-favorable, long-term commitments. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” is the rule here.
  5. Pricing: Always get a proposal, and always sign a contract. It’s advisable to obtain multiple proposals, but carefully scrutinize bids which are well below the mean. Make note of whether the cost is lump sum, not-to-exceed, or time and materials. Many firms lowball their cost estimates and make up for it with out-of-scope add-ons that should have been included initially, so look at all proposed tasks when comparing costs between firms. Lastly, make sure your contract specifies that budget exceedances must be first approved by you before additional costs are incurred.

Naturally, there are considerations such as payment terms, insurance, warranties, indemnifications, records retention policies, and other matters to consider. Carefully review the consultant’s contact and negotiate changes as appropriate. You may have to revisit the contract under conditions less favorable than the initiation of a business relationship. Remember, you almost always get what you pay for, and the critical path with environmental matters is rarely cut-and-dried. Your relationship with an environmental consultant is important. It can last far longer than you anticipated, and it needs to be carefully managed from the beginning. By exercising caution and being diligent in the choosing of an environmental consultant, you will dramatically increase your prospects for a successful project outcome.