Varian neighbors say stream has high levels of chemicals   (copy)

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 a dramatic shift in the fight to clean up toxic chemicals that have threatened a Beverly neighborhood for decades, state regulators are cracking down on the company responsible for the contamination.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection ruled that Varian Medical Systems’ 20-year-long cleanup plan is violating state regulations and ordered the company to come up with a new plan that will solve the problem within two years. If not, the company could be fined or forced to pay for work conducted by the state.

The state’s harsh new stance was laid out in a letter sent to Varian on Friday by Stephen Johnson, MassDEP’s deputy regional director for its bureau of waste site cleanup. The rebuke of the company drew praise and relief from neighbors who have grown increasingly concerned that cancer-causing chemicals emanating from the company’s former site at 150 Sohier Road could be getting into their homes.

“We are very pleased and grateful that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has decided to hold Varian Medical Systems, Inc. accountable and to compel them, finally, to meaningfully address the decades-old contamination related to the chemicals they released into our community,” Voices of Concern North Beverly, a neighborhood group that formed in 2020 in response to the failed cleanup, said in a statement on Monday.

“MassDEP’s action brings us closer to a future in which we no longer have to worry about what lies beneath our homes, our property values, and our children’s safety from hazardous chemicals where they play,” the statement said.

Varian Medical Systems, a $3 billion company located in California, no longer owns the property at 150 Sohier Road but under state law is responsible for the cleanup of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals that were dumped on the site by a predecessor company the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The contamination has migrated in the groundwater to the nearby neighborhood, raising concerns that chemical vapors are getting into homes and businesses.

Varian began cleaning up the property in 1992. But as the operation faded from public view, the company stopped holding public meetings and testing the indoor air of homes.

The cleanup came back into public consciousness in 2020 when a series of Salem News stories revealed that levels of toxic chemicals in the groundwater were still high. Residents formed the neighborhood group to pressure public officials and state regulators into paying more attention to the cleanup and its lack of effectiveness.

In his letter, Johnson said MassDEP’s detailed review of records uncovered that Varian has violated state regulations regarding hazardous waste cleanups by failing to define the extent of contamination in neighborhoods, streams, and in bedrock areas.

For example, when the city raised concerns more than 20 years ago about contamination under Building 5 on the property, Johnson said, the company said no new test wells were needed and that no remediation was planned for that area. But when tests were conducted recently in a new monitoring well that the DEP told Varian to install, they detected levels of trichloroethylene, a chemical that can cause cancer, at 600,000 parts per billion.

David Lang, a groundwater consultant from Beverly who has been advising the neighborhood group, said concerns about indoor air are raised when levels of TCE reach 300 parts per billion.

“Six hundred thousand is way over acceptable,” Lang said.

Johnson said Varian also violated state regulations by failing to recommend a plan that will lead to a permanent solution. He said the company significantly understated how much it was required to reduce contamination in source areas of the site. The actual state guidance calls for reductions that are “significantly below and more stringent” than the limits cited by Varian, he said.

Johnson also said that a “groundwater seep” that was discovered by residents last year in a nearby stream “constitutes an uncontrolled and continuing source of hazardous material discharge.” The stream runs behind the nearby neighborhood, and children have played in the stream over the years, according to neighbors.

Varian Medical Systems said in a statement that they “disagree with the conclusions of this letter, but will continue to work closely with MassDEP in the clean-up of the site.”

“The testing conducted in conjunction with MassDEP has consistently shown no significant risk in the neighborhood,” the statement said. “The health and safety of the area’s residents has always been our primary concern.”

Jan Schlichtmann, an environmental lawyer who lives in Beverly, called the action taken by MassDEP a “historic advance” in the Varian cleanup saga. The contamination on the property was first reported in 1985 and the initial cleanup began in 1992.

“I would say it’s extremely unusual that the DEP would issue an order after all these years in which they were going down one path of remediation and basically call it a failure and saying they’re out of compliance,” Schlichtmann said. “It’s absolutely the right decision for sure.”

The company has been trying to remove the underground chemicals through techniques called chemical oxidation, bioremediation and soil vapor extraction. Varian officials have said they would consider a new plan called thermal treatment, which involves heating up the ground under buildings on the property to vaporize and remove contamination that is the source of the chemicals that are migrating in groundwater into the neighborhood. But Johnson’s letter said the company failed to evaluate the treatment by the deadline imposed by the DEP.

Johnson’s letter said Varian now has until Feb. 18, 2023, to submit a statement that lays out either a permanent or temporary solution.

VOC North Beverly, which is partnering with Shore Country Day School, called the DEP ruling a “hard-won result” that shows what can happen when a community works together. The group thanked Mayor Mike Cahill, the Beverly City Council, state Sen. Joan Lovely, state Rep. Jerry Parisella, and Congressman Seth Moulton for their “unwavering support,” as well as the “dedicated public servants at MassDEP.”

“As a group of residents and neighbors, we have overpowered corporate complacency in the face of regulations intended both to protect our health and to ensure that those who contaminate our environment do the work required to clean up the mess they have made,” the statement said.

“While we are thrilled by this action, we look forward to continued, vigilant work with MassDEP, our elected representatives, and the responsible company to finally and completely remediate this toxic waste spill that has needlessly contaminated and threatened our neighborhood for more than a generation and, ultimately, bring long-sought peace of mind to our community,” the statement added.

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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