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Salem News Special Report
Still Dirty

Varian cleanup has faded from view, but chemical levels remain high

  • 9 min to read

BEVERLY — An industrial site on Sohier Road continues to show high levels of contamination despite a cleanup that has been going on for nearly three decades, raising concerns about the impact on nearby residents, according to two experts on environmental cleanups.

Recent tests at the site of the former Varian Associates revealed elevated levels of potentially toxic chemicals in the groundwater at several locations on the property. In some cases, the tests indicated the presence of chemicals many times higher than state standards.

It is unknown what impact the chemicals are having on the nearby neighborhood because Varian has not tested the indoor air quality of the homes in nearly 20 years.

“These are levels that cannot be ignored,” said Jan Schlichtmann, an environmental lawyer from Beverly who was one of two experts asked by The Salem News to examine the latest test results. “This cleanup system is not working, clearly.”

David Lang, a groundwater consultant from Beverly who is licensed by the state to conduct environmental cleanups, said after reviewing the reports that chemical levels at the site remain “very elevated” since he last looked at the reports 20 years ago. He said a new cleanup plan should be considered.

“They really have still got a big problem on their hands,” Lang said.

Varian sold the Beverly site in 1995, but under state law is still responsible for the cleanup. The company, which is based in California, refused to comment for this story.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, after questions from The Salem News regarding the cleanup, said the agency plans to look into whether residents are being exposed to any of the chemicals. The DEP has oversight of environmental cleanups in the state.

Spokesman Joe Ferson said the agency will examine the most recent data “to see whether updated testing in the downgradient neighborhood should be conducted.”

Treatment plan a ‘colossal failure’

The chemicals in question are trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, or TCE and PCE. TCE is classified as a known carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, while PCE is considered “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” according to the agency.

The chemicals were used for years as cleaning solvents at Varian, which made electronic components. According to testimony in a lawsuit against the company, from 1950 to 1973 employees dumped tens of thousands of gallons of untreated waste chemicals onto the ground and into a stream running through the 24-acre property.

Varian has said for years in its reports on the cleanup that the operation is making progress and meeting goals. But Lang found a different story when he examined the most recent report, which covers cleanup activities from January through June.

Lang, the former chairman of the Beverly Conservation Commission and a former city councilor, said chemical levels at a number of locations on the site “appear quite elevated.” As an example, he said PCE was detected in groundwater samples in three new monitoring wells at 44,000, 13,000 and 9,900 parts per billion — well above the state’s “groundwater 2” standard of 50 parts per billion. At two others wells, PCE levels have “dramatically increased” from 15 and 49 parts per billion in previous years to 100,000 and 150,000 in May, he said.

Lang said the chemicals’ levels are not surpassing their original levels, but are fluctuating based on when treatments are applied. The treatments initially reduce the levels, but the chemicals eventually bounce back, he said.

Lang said the levels are lower in the nearby neighborhood, where several testing wells have been installed over the years. But he said those are deeper wells that don’t test for chemicals in the shallower groundwater that can seep into basements and get into the air inside homes.

Lang said that Varian has never properly identified exactly where the groundwater contamination is, so the treatment program has been ineffective in getting rid of it. 

“They still have unmitigated sources on their property that are causing the levels to be present after all these years,” he said.

Schlichtmann said he was “astonished” that the chemical levels are so high after nearly 30 years of cleanup. The Varian cleanup is one of the longest in the state. According to the DEP, 92% of the cleanups under its jurisdiction over the last 15 years took less than six years.

“When you’re seeing tens of thousands of parts per billion, you’ve got a problem,” Schlichtmann said. “The treatment is a colossal failure.”

Problem dates to 1985

The problem at Varian was first detected in 1985, when the company removed an underground storage tank and found traces of waste chemicals in the soil. The state determined that a release of hazardous material had occurred and directed Varian to investigate the source and extent of the contamination. The company eventually came up with a treatment plan and began the cleanup in 1992.

Over the years Varian has tried a variety of methods to remove the chemicals from the soil and groundwater. It first tried pumping water out of the ground from a well and into a “treatment building,” where beds of carbon would absorb the chemicals. The clean water was then discharged into a stream on the property.

Varian later switched to what was then a new technology, which involved injecting an oxidizer called sodium permanganate into the ground through injection wells in an attempt to break down the chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds. It is also using a technique called bioremediation, which adds nutrients to naturally occurring bacteria to speed up the rate at which the chemicals are naturally broken down to harmless substances. It has also installed a “soil vapor extraction” system to remove chemicals from under two of the buildings.

Under state law, land owners responsible for hazardous waste cleanups can hire what’s called a licensed site professional, or LSP, to conduct the cleanup. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the LSP program, describes it on its website as “largely privatized” and says the DEP provides “limited” oversight.

In 2003, state inspectors cited Varian for “noncompliance,” saying the cleanup effort was not doing enough to find all of the sources of contamination, making it “almost impossible” to evaluate the effectiveness of the cleanup. The state audited the cleanup operation again in 2015, but it only looked at the part of the treatment system that extracts soil vapor and not at groundwater test results. 

The cleanup at Varian was once big news in the city. When the problem became known, residents petitioned the state for a “public involvement plan,” which required the company to file publicly available reports and hold public meetings to keep residents informed.

Varian area map

The cleanup remained in the public eye over the next decade. In 1996, a jury awarded $2.3 million to the owners of the nearby Bass River Tennis Club on Tozer Road, who said the contamination had migrated in the groundwater from Varian to their property.

In 2000, then-Mayor Bill Scanlon accused Varian of providing “misinformation” to state regulators about the cleanup and raised concerns about the impacts on the indoor air quality of homes in the neighborhood across Tozer Road and the railroad tracks. The neighborhood, which includes streets like Sonning Road and Longview Terrace, is “downgradient” from Varian, raising the possibility that contaminated groundwater could migrate under homes and that chemicals could seep into the air inside them.

Residents attended four public meetings in 2000 and 2001 to ask questions and express concerns about the cleanup. In 2001, 36 homeowners signed up to have their indoor air quality tested. The tests showed that three of the homes had chemical levels above standards, but Varian said that household products were the likely source of the chemicals, not Varian.

In 2005, a law firm investigated whether the contamination from Varian could have caused a “cancer cluster” in the neighborhood. Carolyn and Bob Montanari, whose Sonning Road home was one of those tested, said they were contacted by the firm. Their daughter, Kristen, died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1993 at the age of 23, and there were other cancer deaths in the neighborhood, the Montanaris said.

The law firm eventually concluded there was not enough evidence for a claim against Varian. That’s when the cleanup seemed to drop off the radar in Beverly.

“Truly it was a big concern in those days, especially right after Kristen had passed,” Carolyn Montanari said. “Everything has just seemed in time to have dissipated.”

Public meetings stopped

One reason that the Varian cleanup has faded into the background is that the company has not held a public meeting since 2001. The public involvement plan that the company agreed to back in 1993 requires that public meetings be held at “major milestones” in the cleanup. But Ferson, the spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said none of the company’s work at the site over the last 20 years are considered major milestones that would trigger a public meeting.

“The site owner is in compliance with the MCP,” Ferson said in an email, referring to the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, the state laws and regulations that cover the cleanup of contaminated properties.

That leaves anyone who wants to keep up with the cleanup the only option of reading the reports, which Varian files every six months as required and are available online on the state DEP website, and an occasional “environmental update” newsletter. But residents interviewed for this story said either they stopped reading the reports years ago or never looked at them, mainly because they are too difficult to understand.

Cleanup has faded from view, but chemical levels remain high

Some of the thousands of pages of reports on file at the Beverly Public Library regarding the environmental cleanup at the former Varian site.

The latest report, issued on July 29, is 684 pages long with hundreds of pages of charts. It is among thousands of pages of reports tucked inside dozens of three-ring binders in a special “repository” of Varian records at the Beverly Public Library that is required by law.

“I’ve never looked at them,” said Richard Tabbut, another Sonning Road resident. “I’m not a scientist.”

The Montanaris said they occasionally see workers dropping long poles into two wells that were drilled into the street in front of their house years ago. They are among dozens of other wells that have been drilled on the Varian property and surrounding areas over the years to test the groundwater and inject a solution in an attempt to get rid of the contaminants.

Otherwise, the Montanaris said they have given the ongoing cleanup operation little thought.

“We assumed that since no one had been telling us anything that in fact the levels were going down,” Bob Montanari said.

Marc Boisvert, who owns Arro Engineering on Tozer Road, said he signed an agreement with Varian in 1989 that waived the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit against the company in exchange for giving Varian time to clean up the property. Thirty years later, he said, he’s still waiting.

Boisvert said Varian has been testing the groundwater on his property for years, and just last year asked for permission to drill a new test well inside his building because they said the problem was getting worse. He said he gave the OK because the company told him he would be responsible for any contamination if he didn’t. Boisvert said he hired an environmental engineer to watch over the company as it tested the groundwater samples from under his building.

“They’re a big business and I’m sorry but I’m just a little guy,” he said. “I felt threatened a little bit. Nobody’s telling me anything.”

Community ‘must stay vigilant’

Varian Associates was founded in 1948 by a group of scientists in California. Among them were brothers Russell and Sigurd Varian, who during World War II helped develop a source of strong microwave signals to improve navigation and warn of potential Nazi bombing raids, according to a history of the company.

In 1959, Varian bought the former Bomac Laboratories on Sohier Road in Beverly and continued its use as a manufacturer of electron devices. Varian Associates split into three companies in 1999, including Varian Medical Systems, which maintained responsibility for the cleanup in Beverly.

Headquartered in Palo Alto, California, Varian Medical Systems is a maker of cancer care technology, with 10,000 employees at 34 locations throughout the world and annual revenue of almost $3 billion. In August, the company announced it would be acquired by the German company Siemens Healthineers in an all-cash deal valued at $16.4 billion.

The site at 150 Sohier Road is now owned by Communications & Power Industries, which is also based in California and operates its microwave division at the Beverly site.

CPI, as it is called, has had its own problems handling hazardous waste. It has been cited three times in the last 15 years by the state for “non-compliance” with environmental regulations, including in 2017 for improper storage of hazardous waste containers. On Oct. 12, the company reported an “imminent hazard” after a release of 200,000 micrograms per liter of acetone into the soil or groundwater. The company listed the type of release as “unknown.”

CPI in Beverly referred questions to a spokeswoman at its national office. She did not return a call for comment.

Schlichtmann and Lang both said the public should be informed about what’s going on at Varian. Schlichtmann, who gained fame when he was portrayed by John Travolta in the movie “A Civil Action” about an environmental pollution case in Woburn, had kept close tabs on the Varian cleanup on behalf of the Wenham Lake Watershed Association in the 1990s. But he said he has not paid attention to the project for years. 

“Like everybody else I put it out of mind,” he said. “I figured it was on track to be resolved. It just shows you the community can’t stop being vigilant.”

Schlichtmann and Lang said the best way to clean up the property, and insure the safety of the nearby residents, is to dig out the sources of contamination and remove the material from the property, a much more expensive prospect than the current treatment program.

“You got to remove the source,” Schlichtmann said. “That’s the one thing we learned from the Woburn site.”

If that’s not done, he said, “Twenty years from now we’ll be having the same conversation and nothing will change.”

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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