Two top officials of the East Orange Water Commission (EOWC), which serves South Orange, have been charged with manipulating water test results, according to Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa.
Harry L. Mansmann, 58, of Lawrenceville, executive director of the EOWC, and William Mowell, 51, of Wyckoff, the assistant executive director and engineer for the EOWC, have been charged with allegedly conspiring to manipulate the agency’s water supply by shutting down contaminated wells prior to monthly water tests in order to falsify results.
The pair are accused of reporting lower levels of the contaminant tetrachlorethene (PERC), an industrial solvent used for dry cleaning and other purposes which is classified as a probable carcinogen.
"The governing body of South Orange is satisfied that our concerns are finally being vindicated and that with the installation of equipment long urged by South Orange, our residents will finally receive the quality of water they are entitled to, and the people who failed to address these concerns will have to face the consequences of their inaction," Village President Alex Torpey said on Wednesday.
As recently as January 15, the EOWC released water test results. Those results showed, according to a Village release, "levels high enough to warrant diligent monitoring." The previous set of results was made public in November.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that the two top directors responsible for ensuring the quality and safety of drinking water supplied to tens of thousands of residents in East Orange and South Orange would deliberately manipulate sampling to hide the fact that the water supply contained elevated levels of a contaminant, as is alleged in this indictment,” said Chiesa. “These defendants rightfully face serious criminal charges.”
Investigators said the pair "cherry picked the test results they reported to the DEP on another occasion, and pumped water from their most contaminated well into the Passaic River without a permit for nearly a month,” according to Director Stephen J. Taylor of the Division of Criminal Justice.
Following the alleged criminal conduct, the DEP conducted independent tests of the East Orange water system, and samples showed PERC levels slightly above state standards but within federal safe drinking water parameters. The DEP is continuing to monitor the system.
The EOWC supplies drinking water to East Orange and also has a contract to supply drinking water to South Orange. The water is pumped from well fields in eastern Morris and western Essex counties through a pumping station in Millburn to two reservoirs, from which water is distributed to customers. The utility blends water from its various wells at its treatment plant before water is distributed to customers. The EOWC has encountered problems with elevated levels of PERC in several wells.
The Village of South Orange has previously filed suit against the EOWC. At that time, residents were cautioned by state officials that prolonged bathing was not recommended. The litigation is ongoing, as Torpey noted.
"For more than two years our counsel for South Orange have been engaged in an effort to persuade the East Orange Water Commission (EOWC) to address contamination in water sold to the residents of South Orange," said Torpey.
"It is unfortunate that the management of EOWC has refused to deal with the condition of its water supply and now must respond to a criminal indictment, even though we wish, and believe, this could've been solved long ago had EOWC properly stepped up and addresses their problems," he said.
South Orange residents have been vocal in their concern about water safety. Nearly two years ago, in April, 2011, residents reported worries about water safety and what they perceived as lack of information. "There is no contamination,” said Mansmann. “The health, welfare and safety of residents is paramount,” he said. “The water from EOWC is the cleanest water in the state of New Jersey.”
South Orange Trustee Michael Goldberg said, "It's unfortunate that it took two years and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get to this point, but I am glad to see that the state has finally taken action. However, the question still remains of what will be done to actually rectify the problem."
The crimes carry penalties of money and prison sentences. The full indictment is here.