Varian neighbors say stream has high levels of chemicals  

Residents are concerned about water contamination in a stream near the former Varian site on Sohier Road in Beverly. Water samples taken from a spring in the stream and tested at professional labs showed levels of toxic chemicals “well above” Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection groundwater cleanup standards.

BEVERLY — In September 2000, city officials wanted Varian to test the bedrock on a certain section of its former property to see if that could be a source of the toxic chemicals spreading into the nearby neighborhood. The company pushed back, saying the tests weren’t necessary.

In November 2021 — more than two decades later — those tests were finally conducted. They revealed levels of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene at 600,000 parts per billion. Experts say concerns about indoor air are raised when levels reach 300 parts per billion.

The high number helped trigger a dramatic ruling last week by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that Varian’s cleanup operation is not working, and in fact is in violation of state regulations. The agency ordered the company to develop a new plan and set a deadline of two years to solve the problem — or face fines if it doesn’t comply.

The turn of events raised obvious questions. Why weren’t those key bedrock tests conducted 20 years ago, and why did it take nearly three decades for state regulators to conclude that the cleanup, which began in 1992, is not working?

The answers lie in part in the state’s semi-privatized approach to cleaning up hazardous waste sites. Under a program passed by the state Legislature in 1993, businesses responsible for hazardous waste spills are required to hire private-sector engineers and scientists called “licensed site professionals,” or LSPs, to assess and clean up the mess.

The system essentially puts the polluters in charge of their own cleanup, with occasional oversight by MassDEP. Advocates of the program say it has worked well for the most part. But the interminable Varian cleanup, which has kept neighbors on edge for decades, has exposed flaws in the system.

The semi-privatized system, which was the first of its kind in the country, was intended to take the onus off an overwhelmed MassDEP staff. Advocates say the agency didn’t have the resources to handle the thousands of spills that occur every year, from small ones at gas stations and dry cleaners to large and complicated sites like the one at Varian.

Under the current system, businesses hire an LSP — there are 456 in Massachusetts — to do the work. According to MassDEP, more than 40,000 sites, an average of about 1,400 per year, have been cleaned up under the LSP program since 1993. Most of them take less than six years.

LSPs are licensed by a state board and are obligated to comply with state environmental regulations, according to Wendy Rundle, executive director of the LSP Association. But the LSPs are also paid by the companies that are responsible for the cleanup — companies that have an incentive to keep costs down.

Rundle acknowledged that there can be “tensions” between LSPs and their clients. But she also said LSPs make a commitment to protect the public’s health and safety, and that MassDEP and the licensing board provide oversight.

“While it might seem on the surface that there’s a conflict of interest, our experiences over 20 years show that the checks and balances in the system work,” she said.

The state LSP board, called the Board of Registration of Hazardous Waste Site Cleanup Professionals, investigates complaints against LSPs and hands out discipline. It’s unclear, however, how often investigations are carried out — the summary of disciplinary actions listed on the board’s website was last updated in 2013.

The system of oversight has obviously been lax at the Varian site at 150 Sohier Road, where thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals were dumped in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The company and the state stopped holding public meetings on the cleanup years ago, while the LSPs working for Varian continued to file reports saying the cleanup is “progressing.”

It was not until two years ago, when the public began paying attention to the cleanup after a series of Salem News stories revealed that chemical levels were still high, that MassDEP began taking a closer look.

In the “notice of noncompliance” issued last week, MassDEP Deputy Regional Director Stephen Johnson pointed out several problems with the cleanup, including the fact that Varian had not tested the bedrock as the city had requested 20 years ago. He also said Varian has been using the wrong goal to measure its progress; using a treatment that the company once said was the “lowest rated” option; and injecting solutions to clean up the underground chemicals into the same wells it uses to monitor the chemical levels, a practice that can skew the test results.

Overall, Johnson concluded that the cleanup has failed to adequately characterize the extent of the contamination and to control or eliminate the sources of contamination — leaving residents to still worry whether the chemicals could get into their homes.

A MassDEP spokesman did not respond to questions for this story about why the agency did not discover those flaws earlier.

One other consequence of the privatized system is that the public has no idea how much money is being spent on a cleanup. MassDEP says it is not involved in the contract between the LSP and the “potentially responsible party” — in this case Varian Medical Systems — and the contract does not have to be submitted to the state.

Varian Medical Systems, one of three companies that split off from the original Varian, is the world’s leading provider of cancer-care equipment and software. Last year, the California-based company was acquired by Siemens Healthineers AG of Germany for a reported $16.4 billion.

A spokesman for Varian declined to say how much money the company has spent on the cleanup, other than to call it a “long, complex and costly process.” The company said it disagrees with MassDEP’s conclusion that the cleanup is not working, and said testing by both Varian and DEP has consistently shown “no significant risk to the neighborhood.”

“The health and safety of the area’s residents has always been our primary concern,” the company said.

Staff Writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at pleighton@salemnews.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

Staff Writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at pleighton@salemnews.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

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