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New Jersey utility manipulated water samples to hide industrial solvent

March 11, 2013

East-Orange-Water-CommissionThe East Orange Water Commission will have to pay $400,000 in fines following the discovery that the New Jersey utility had deliberately hidden information about elevated levels of an industrial solvent in drinking water, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced.

The case was brought to public attention in February, when the commission's executive director, Harry Mansmann, and its assistant executive director, William Mowell, were charged with conspiring to hide increased levels of tetrachloroethene in the drinking water supplied to 80,000 residents in the area, in an attempt to show that the water met all state standards for drinking water. Officially, the indictment charges them with conspiracy, official misconduct, unlawful release of a toxic pollutant, tampering with public records or information and violating the state drinking water and pollution laws. Some of these violations could lead to a ten-year prison sentence if Mansmann and Mowell are found guilty.

According to the DEP, the Commission falsified samples and test results, thus concealing the presence and the actual levels of contaminants, so that the drinking water seemed cleaner than it was. The DEP gave an assurance to the local community that members of the public were not at risk but noted that failure to comply with state standards and manipulation of test results is seen as a breach of public trust. The state of New Jersey insists that its high standards of accountability relating to drinking water are being met and water providers must provide accurate information of their water system operations, the DEP stated. Independent tests carried out by the DEP revealed that the water supplied to the City of East Orange and to neighboring South Orange was safe to drink.

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In relation to the alleged manipulation of results and samples, the DEP issued two administrative orders to the East Orange Water Commission concerning a series of violations of standards for record keeping and public notifications, among others. In addition, the utility is accused of discharging water with elevated levels of contaminants into the Passaic River, the Star-Ledger reported. The Commission is entitled to an administrative hearing and so far has been unavailable to comment, the news source noted.

The Attorney General's Office claimed that the two officials had attempted to cover the elevated levels of the industrial solvent rather than report them and take steps to deal with the problem. The Commission could have bought equipment to remove the chemical or arranged for clean water to be supplied from elsewhere but the two officials simply manipulated the results, hoping that they could prevent spending millions of dollars to correct the situation, the state said.

According to the federal health department exposure to high levels of the chemical over long periods of time can increase the risk of cancer. DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said that the levels detected in the water supplied by the utility were not high enough to pose a threat to consumers but were sufficiently high for the Department to intervene.