MassDEP responds to incident at the Sullivan Courthouse

Originally posted Monday, Sept. 2, 2019

On Thursday evening (Aug. 29), I received a copy of a report that was emailed to the Cambridge City Council suggesting the presence of exposed asbestos at the Sullivan Courthouse.

Upon reading the report, I immediately contacted state and city officials and proceeded to file an asbestos complaint with Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to ensure they were put on notice about these concerns.

The report was produced by a Cambridge resident who says he entered the Courthouse premises looking for asbestos last Sunday (Aug. 25) and proceeded to gather materials from the floor of a room inside the bay door area on the Spring Street side of the building. Apparently, the resident removed those materials from the site and sent them off to a lab in Virginia for testing. The resident, who happens to be an outspoken supporter of the Leggat McCall plan to redevelop the Courthouse, did not appear to have any credentials, and it is not clear how he managed to go unnoticed by the 24/7 on-site security.

On Friday morning, I followed up with state and city officials to begin to coordinate a response, as any report of asbestos exposure must be taken seriously. Upon an initial review of the resident's report, MassDEP indicated they weren't sure it merited an urgent response, and they offered to send someone out next week to look at the situation. I also spoke with the DCAMM Cheif of Staff and provided him with a copy of the report, and I spoke with the City Manager, who indicated the acting fire cheif had been advised.

By early Friday afternoon, I was able to get the MassDEP person who was on call for our area to agree to send staff from their emergency response program out to the Courthouse to investigate the concerns raised by the resident's report. I did not think it would be prudent or acceptable for us to allow these concerns to go unaddressed over the long holiday weekend.

I ended up spending the better part of the afternoon on Friday at the Courthouse site, and I met with two members of the MassDEP emergency response team, along with a consultant who was dispatched from the state's Division of Capital Management and Maintenance (DCAMM).

Immediate Response from MassDEP

The MassDEP team observed the presence of what appeared to them to be a "minor amount" of "suspected asbestos containing material" in the area of the exposed room on the Spring Street side of the building. They gave the impression that any risks were quite minimal (e.g. they spent a good amount of time conferring with each other and looking at the bay door area and didn't use any protective gear, see photo below), and later I was told their initial assessment was that a very small section of insulation had likely fallen to the ground inside the room behind the bay door.  

While on site, MassDEP instructed DCAMM to immediately hire a contractor for the purpose of sealing off the exposed bay door with polyethylene and wood. MassDEP also instructed DCAMM to close windows that were opened on the Spring Street side of the building. MassDEP further instructed DCAMM to close off any gaps in the fencing. 

By Friday night, DCAMM’s contractor was on scene doing the prescribed work under the supervision of MassDEP, and as of Saturday morning, the room behind the bay door area at issue had been sealed off as ordered. The windows that had been open were closed as well. The photo below is from Saturday morning.

After the door was sealed, I followed up with MassDEP again to try to get a better understanding of what they had found. I was advised that they could not yet confirm the presence of any asbestos in the area. An official report will be forthcoming, they said, and in the meantime, any health related questions should be directed to the City’s Director of Environmental Health. Staff at MassDEP also added: "We are not aware of any exposure, but out of an abundance of caution we sealed the area." As I understand it, on Friday evening, MassDEP oversaw the use of a HEPA vacuum to remove debris from the area.

From what I could gather, the initial sense of the team on site was that a small portion of overhead insulation appears to have fallen to the ground inside the room behind that bay door area. This insulation was described as "suspected asbestos containing material." It was further indicated that the suspected material "looked hard still...still bound in the material it was made of," indicating the suspect material did not appear to be friable. This may explain why the emergency response team examining the area on Friday afternoon did not feel the need to wear any protective gear — because asbestos is generally only considered likely to cause harm when it is friable. Official statements from the City of Cambridge and MassDEP are expected to be forthcoming.

Second Street Gate and Follow Up

Over the weekend, I received reports from residents who noticed that the gate on the Second Street side of the building hadn't yet been locked as was ordered by MassDEP on Friday afternoon.

On Sunday, I spent about two hours on the phone with MassDEP's on-call emergency response person, further reviewing the outcome of the work from Friday night and raising the additional concerns that I heard about over the weekend. MassDEP explained that over the course of the evening on Friday, they decided to allow the gate to remain open because DCAMM's 24/7 security guards have typically been sitting in their automobiles in the far corner of that sallyport area along Spring Street (actually facing the bay door area in question in the resident's report).

Based on the feedback I had received from several residents over the weekend, MassDEP agreed with me to go ahead and close off and lock the gate last night (Sept. 1). A MassDEP on-call responder went to Home Depot in Somerville and purchased a lock and chain on Sunday evening and secured the gate circa 8 pm. The photo below is from Second Street this morning (Sept. 2).

Background and Next Steps

Back in late July, both the state's DCAMM and the city's fire chief repeatedly assured us there were no concerns about exposure to asbestos at the Courthouse — and they each advised that the building was not posing a hazard to the public.

On July 30, the city's fire chief told the city council that an inspection of the building wasn't necessary. "I do not have any concern that the building is exposing people to cancer-causing toxins," the fire chief stated.

It is also important to add that any actual harm or threat posed by this situation remains undetermined by city and state officials at this point. As I prepare this blog post on Monday evening, I am not aware of any other official public statements that have been made to the public relative to this matter at this time.

On Saturday, the City's Director of Environmental Health, Sam Lipson, responded to questions that were emailed to him about the incident as follows: "It seems that the MA DEP has mobilized their staff and their contractors as a result of the recent events and we will be hearing more about their findings, the plan to evaluate any possible release of Asbestos-containing material (ACM), and measures to prevent any further risk of release going forward."

MassDEP has stated "that with all certainty there will be additional DEP involvement" in the days ahead — and that this is just the "start of a conversation" about the status of the Courthouse. MassDEP told me that if DCAMM cannot do the job of securing the building, then MassDEP will do it. I really appreciated hearing that MassDEP is committed to its mission in this way, and was impressed that they didn't miss a beat over the Labor Day holiday weekend.

I provide the detailed narrative above for the sake of transparency and to let everyone know what I am doing in response to this situation. Like many residents, I think it is fair to say that DCAMM has done a terribly poor job of maintaining the Sullivan Courthouse. DCAMM has allowed the pipes to burst multiple times (resulting in presence of standing water in the Courthouse basement) and failed to ensure steam service was disconnected (resulting in an incident back in June). In addition, several residents contacted me to say they find it concerning that a resident was able to go unnoticed by DCAMM’s 24/7 security and enter the premises, removing material that could have potentially exposed the neighborhood to a hazard.

Right now, city and state officials must work together to address this situation and ensure the Courthouse is remediated of asbestos and prepared for redevelopment in a way the serves the public interest. The state’s duty to secure, maintain, and remediate any hazard at the Sullivan Courthouse is not obviated by the status of any disposition process or discussion about future development plans. Indeed, DCAMM has advised that if it is demonstrated that the building does pose a threat to public health, then they are obligated to immediately address it.

Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns about this or any other matter.


Eight days after the aforementioned resident informed the City Council about his venture onto the Courthouse premises, the Cambridge City Manager provided the council with a statement on the incident.

The statement confirms what has been reported above, for example: 

The City was made aware of a communication to the neighborhood late last week that a neighbor had stated that he had identified alleged Asbestos Containing Material, likely insulation, in a sample that the neighbor had taken from material he found immediately inside the Courthouse building.

Moreover, the statement further advises this latest update:

Senior management from MA DEP who are very experienced in site and building remediation visited the Courthouse building on Wednesday afternoon, September 4th. They wanted to ensure that the Courthouse building was appropriately sealed, and that any friable asbestos would not escape the building. They found the Courthouse building to be significantly humid and well-sealed, and they informed us that they were not concerned about any need for containment at this time.

To read the City's full statement, which also includes information on the status of plans for removal of standing water in the Courthouse basement, please click here.


After hearing some five hours of public comment relative to the Sullivan Courthouse and First Street Garage disposition matter, late last night the Cambridge City Council heard from Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health at Cambridge Public Health Department. Mr. Lipson told the council that senior officials and experts in asbestos from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection examined the Courthouse multiple times and did not express concern over the situation at the building. 

As Mr. Lipson, the City's Director of Environmental Health, explained to the City Council last night:

"A member of the DEP who has training in asbestos management, a specialist in that area, came back on Sunday to walk around and examine the area, and also on Wednesday the supervisor for the team of specialists at DEP who address asbestos containment and removal walked around again, the entire building, and I spoke to him on the phone immediately after that and asked him to describe what he saw, he indicated to me that he felt both at the immediate ground level where that gated door had been and throughout the areas that he saw as he walked around that the building was sufficiently sealed off and he wasn't concerned about it."

Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant in terms of protecting public safety and environmental health. My staff and I will continue to work with city and state officials to ensure that all concerns are addressed and we will continue to share everything we know in a transparent fashion.


In consultation with the Cambridge City Manager, my office is making a number of requests to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection relative to people's concerns about the status and condition of the Sullivan Courthouse.

As folks know, I spent the better part of Labor Day weekend at the Courthouse site working to ensure that MassDEP immediately responded to concerns that were raised by a resident's report of exposed asbestos on the floor of a room inside the bay door area on the Spring Street side of the building.

It's worth pointing out that DCAMM, MassDEP, and officials with the City of Cambridge have all assured us on multiple occasions over the course of several months that the Courthouse is not causing any concern relative to being a safety or environmental hazard.

Nevertheless, it is clear that concern in the neighborhood is real, and so these requests are intended to make sure MassDEP follows up on everything we discussed on site during the Labor Day holiday weekend and furthermore continues to address the serious questions people have about the Courthouse site.


On Wednesday, I joined with Cambridge officials in making a number requests to MassDEP relative to the status of the Sullivan Courthouse. Today, I am pleased to share DEP’s initial response to my letter. My office will continue working to ensure all health and safety concerns are fully addressed. Regardless of the current status of the disposition process, the state has a duty to maintain the Courthouse building and ensure that it poses no hazard to the neighborhood.