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New Brunswick Water Utility Repeatedly Covered Up Quality Violations For 3+ Years

City Worker Edward O'Rourke Fined $17,000 and Gets His License Suspended by NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection
NB Water Utility
The New Brunswick Water Utility allegedly reported false water quality information to the state government repeatedly. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—City officials have yet to respond to charges the New Brunswick Water Utility repeatedly lied in water quality reports filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The DEP announced late today that it has filed administrative orders alleging the New Brunswick Water Department repeatedly filed false reports for various water quality tests, submitted incorrectly calculated test results, and failed to notify the public when standards were not met.

Though it cannot be discerned whether public health was impacted, the violations "had the potential to expose the public to disease-causing microorganisms," according to the DEP.

From early 2010 to spring 2013, New Brunswick repeatedly reported no problems with drinking water standards for key water criteria used to measure the potential for pathogens to be in the water supply. But a subsequent investigation showed that the system repeatedly violated these standards.

The utility serves over 50,000 people in New Brunswick, and also sells "bulk water" to the Milltown Water Department and Franklin Township water system.

In the related administrative order, the DEP alleges that Edward O'Rourke, an employee of the utility, reported false results to the DEP on required forms and monthly reports, although he certified them as accurate. The DEP has suspended O'Rourke's operating license and fined him $17,000.

O'Rourke has worked for the city since 1976 and made an annual salary of $78,893, and officials could not be reached to confirm whether he was still employed by the city.

O'Rourke is still listed on the city website as Chief Water Treatment Plant Operator, "responsible for treatment and pumping of 13 million gallons of potable water daily."

The DEP also "reserves the right to seek monetary penalties against the city" and is working with city officials to publicize the embarrassing violations in a campaign expected to begin "within several weeks."

"These are serious violations," said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.  "It is critical that water providers maintain and provide accurate records of water system operations and water quality data. Any deviation from those standards is an unacceptable violation of the public trust. Maintaining the integrity of our potable water supply system is vital in New Jersey.''

Activists also said the violations were serious: Jim Walsh, the NJ Director of Food & Water Watch said, "This is a tremendous breach of public trust and we are glad that the city has taken corrective action.  We call on the mayor to make sure that protections are in place so that future issues like this are identified and dealt with quickly to ensure that public health is not impacted."

The DEP was assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their investigation of the water quality data.

At an October 16 City Council meeting, New Brunswick Today asked about rumors of an investigation into the Water Department.

"What kind of investigation, Secret Service?" snapped Russell Marchetta, a spokesman for Mayor James Cahill.  When the author of this article responded, "Environmental Protection Agency," Marchetta brushed it aside.

"We work with them every day," said Marchetta.

The video of that meeting was never posted to the city's website, unlike every other Council meeting for the past two years.

"Unfortunately we are experiencing technical difficulties downloading the video from October 16. We are continuing to try and retrieve the video footage from the camera but have been unsuccessful to date. If we retrieve the footage we will post it asap," wrote Marchetta.

The video was never posted and Marchetta took the fall for the failure at the November 6 meeting.

In their November 14 press release, the DEP alleged that the following violations occurred in New Brunswick's Water Utility:

  • Submitted false results for turbidity, an important performance standard that measures water's clarity and quality. The more turbid water is, the more likely it is to carry pathogens
  • Used outdated charts that resulted in incorrect calculations for results of tests designed to show how effective disinfection was at destroying pathogens, namely Giardia lamblia. Giardia is used as an indicator of other potentially dangerous pathogens in the water;
  • Submitted false information on tests for total coliforms, an indicator of bacteria that is used to determine if further testing is required for more serious pathogens such as E. coli.

CITY HAD NO WATER DIRECTOR FOR OVER FIVE YEARS

Shawn Maloney was one of Mayor Cahill's strongest and most vocal supporters.  He served on the city's powerful Planning Board, regularly volunteered his time for the local Democratic party organization, and he served as the city's Water Utility Director.

But in 2007, Maloney cut his own life short.  At the age of 42, after finding out he was a target in a federal corruption investigation, Maloney shot himself in the head in a field near the city's water treatment plant.

For the next seven years, Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin did double-duty, filling in for Maloney and managing his own department.

According to the DEP press release, the reporting problems began on Loughlin's watch.  But they continued after the city hired a new water director in 2012.

Just two weeks before Hurricane Sandy struck last year, Frank Marascia was hired to run the department.  During the storm, a power outage at the treatment plant put the water system in danger and necesitated a water boil advisory.

As we reported last week, stories told by Rutgers and city officials still don't match up regarding the significance that the boil advisory played in the school's decision to evacuate 6,000 students from every dorm in New Brunswick. 

It was Marascia's report of a water turbidity problem in June that first alerted the DEP to the problems with New Brunswick's previous reporting.

According to the DEP press release, the water utility "has undergone a significant reorganization under Marascia and has brought on a new team or professionals to operate the plant."

"The city has also engaged a consulting firm to implement corrective strategies."

"Once the reporting failures were discovered, the New Brunswick Water Department immediately implemented a number of steps to ensure the safety of its water supply, including adjusting disinfection, correcting calculations and establishing protocols to ensure samples are tested properly," read the release.

"We are very confident that the new management at the water department has taken all necessary and appropriate steps to correct these problems and that the city's water is safe for consumption," said DEP Assistant Commissioner for Compliance and Enforcement John Giordano.

"The DEP, along with the EPA, will continue to work very closely with the city to ensure these problems never happen again," said Giordano.