November 17, 2020

Officials vow to hold Varian accountable for cleanup

BEVERLY — Congressman Seth Moulton's office and state and local officials on Monday expressed concern about the ongoing contamination at the former Varian site on Sohier Road and vowed to hold the company accountable for its cleanup.

A spokesman for Moulton said his office contacted the federal Environmental Protection Agency after The Salem News reported on Monday that levels of potentially toxic chemicals remain high despite a cleanup that has been going on for 28 years.

Spokesman Tim Biba said Moulton's office has asked the EPA if the Varian site would be eligible for federal funding through the agency's Brownfields program, and said Moulton would help secure the money if it is.

"Ultimately, rather than sticking the American people with the bill in the form of grants, Varian should be held accountable for polluting in Beverly and failing to clean it up," Biba said in an email.

Varian has said in government-mandated reports that the cleanup is making progress. But two experts who examined the latest test results for The Salem News found that chemical levels in the groundwater remain high.

Beverly state Rep. Jerry Parisella called the report of the high levels "very concerning." He said he contacted the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on Monday and asked the agency to look into the matter.

"Varian has a duty and obligation to properly clean up this site," Parisella said. "They have a moral and legal obligation to the residents of that area to ensure contaminants are not spreading throughout the site and beyond."

Ward 3 City Councilor Stacy Ames, who represents the area, said she reached out to residents and businesses on Monday and plans to hold a meeting with the neighborhood to answer their questions.

"Obviously the residents need to be protected," Ames said. "I won't stop looking at it until people feel they have the answers they need."

State Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem, whose district includes Beverly, called the contamination "highly concerning" and said she would also look into it. Mayor Mike Cahill said he was looking into the situation and would comment when he had more information.

The former Varian site is located at 150 Sohier Road alongside Route 128. Contamination was first discovered in 1985. Employees of Varian Associates, which made electronic parts, once testified in a lawsuit against the company that tens of thousands of gallons of untreated waste chemicals were dumped onto the ground and into a stream running through the 24-acre property.

The company was ordered by the state to begin the cleanup in 1992. Varian sold the site in 1995 but is still responsible for the cleanup under state law.

A private company hired by Varian has been injecting an oxidizer into the groundwater and adding nutrients in an attempt to break down the chemicals. But the operation has been ineffective, according to David Lang, an environmental engineer from Beverly, and Jan Schlictmann, an environmental lawyer from Beverly, who have both examined the test results. Schlictmann called the cleanup a "colossal failure."

After being contacted by The Salem News, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection said it would look into whether residents are being exposed to any of the chemicals. The DEP has oversight of environmental cleanups in the state.

There is no evidence that the chemicals are harming residents or businesses. But Lang and Schlictmann said Varian should conduct indoor air quality tests to insure that the chemicals have not migrated to the homes and businesses that are "downgradient" from the site. The homes in the neighborhood have not been tested for 20 years.

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.

A spokeswoman for Varian did not return a message for this story.

By:  Paul Leighton
Source: The Salem News