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American Water Under Fire For Treatment Violations in New Brunswick

City Says Private Water Company Accepted Blame For DEP Violations, But Company Says That Would Have to Be Reviewed and Discussed
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The company hired by Mayor James Cahill to perform critical functions for the city's embattled Water Utility has accepted blame for the latest violations committed by the agency, according to a memo from his Business Administrator.

As we reported, the city did not properly treat water on ten different days in December 2014, and one day in January 2015.

"Please know that American Water Operations and Maintenance Inc. has accepted responsibility for the entire matter," wrote Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin in the April 13 memo to City Council members.

"They have agreed to reimburse us for the costs of producing and mailing the notice.  If penalties are assessed by NJDEP, we will look to American Water... to satisfy same."

But American Water was not ready to commit to pay any potential fines: "That is something we would review and discuss with the City if a fine were to be issued," said a company spokesperson.

One of their employees, Scott Baxter-Green, was responsible for the mistake, according to the official story.

Baxter-Green failed to check "chlorine contact time" on a daily basis, and therefore did not realize the plant was not meeting its numbers for several weeks.  In January, officials notified the DEP, but the public was kept in the dark until April.

"We have since raised chlorine levels in the treatment process and have instituted an operating procedure wherein the chlorine contact time is calculated daily rather than at the end of the reporting period," wrote Loughlin.

"With some modifications to our control system, we intend to calculate chlorine contact hourly in the near future."

"Scott [Baxter-Green] was not 'transferred,'" wrote the American Water spokesperson, taking issue with NBToday's question.  "He was on a temporary assignment, and once the City was able to hire a T4 licensed operator, Scott was able to return to his regular position."

The spokesperson asked us to refer all subsequent questions to Cahill spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw, whose statements contradicted the company's.

"Baxter-Green was transferred to another American Water facility, which was their decision,"  Bradshaw previously told NBToday.

New Brunswick Today first learned of the internal memo when Councilman Kevin Egan called to clarify that he was truthful in his April 17 statements that he had not previously heard about the violations, but that he later discovered he had been informed in writing four days earlier, but never read the memo until a week later.

After Loughlin refused to swiftly provide a copy of the memo, this newspaper filed a formal request under the Open Public Records Act to obtain the document.

American Water's controversial involvement in New Brunswick stemmed from a strange series of events that began when the city was caught falsifying records in 2013.

Within a year, the city's well-liked Water Director left for a private job with American Water, and a few months later the Mayor quietly signed a deal that would hand over some aspects of the water system to them.

The same company gave $50,000 to the Republican Governor's Association, led by NJ Governor Chris Christie, at the time Christie was considering a bill that could make it easier for private companies like NJ American Water to take over public water systems.

Christie signed the bill earlier this year, removing a requirement that the sale of infrastructure be put to a public vote.

Instead, the sale of New Brunswick's public water systems can now be "fast-tracked," and approved by a majority of City Council members and the Mayor.

"It is not surprising that Governor Christie has once again sided with special interests who have the deep pockets to fund his presidential ambitions while leaving New Jersey residents to deal with the mess he leaves in his wake," said Jim Walsh, NJ Director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

"By signing this bill Governor Christie is paving the way for a corporate handout while jeopardizing public health, the environment and fleecing the public for one of our most valuable assets."

It remains to be seen if the company has any interest in continuing to work with New Brunswick after their latest one-year contract expires in September.

Sources say the company will likely refuse any less than a 15-year partial privatization. The Mayor and officials in the administration have said they are seeking to end the deal, but would not rule out continuing it.

Matters were further complicated when the city's new Water Director was demoted, allegedly for using a derogatory slur on the job, in March.

Alexei Walus remains on the payroll, perhaps because the city has needed him for his "T4" water treatment license ever since Baxter-Green was removed from the New Brunswick facility in February.

Editor's Note: The author of this article was one of the leaders of the campaign that successfully prevented the sale of much of the City of Trenton's water system to American Water in 2010.