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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–So far, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Attorney General’s Office have held off on punishing the city, and its longtime water treatment plant operator for falsifying water quality reports and endangering the public.
On seven occasions between 2010 and 2013, the city covered up problems with its drinking water, neglecting to properly notify its own customers that they should be boiling water before use.
Among the violations identified were failure to report turbidity exceedances, inadequate disinfection, and improper sampling of water quality.
The city’s Water Utility supplies water to all of the residents and businesses in New Brunswick, including Rutgers University, as well as those in Milltown and parts of Franklin Township.
Now, both the city and longtime worker Edward O’Rourke are seeking to avoid stiff penalties for the crimes.
Though a June 2013 “turbidity event” first revealed that something was wrong at the city’s Water Utility, and operational control of the plant was quickly taken from O’Rourke, and by July O’Rourke had been determined to have improperly failed to report problems with the water.
“At the conclusion of the survey in late July, it was noted that six categorical violations were documented in the facility’s historical records, but were never reported by Mr. O’Rourke to City Officials, NJDEP or the public as required by law,” reads a public notice about the issue.
But it was not until three months later, in October 2013, that O’Rourke was suspended, and it took until November before the public was finally notified of the corruption and cover-up.
By comparison, in East Orange, a water quality cover-up became public in February 2013, when two indictments against public officials. One man died before he could go to trial, and the other was sentenced to a prison term of three years in December.
But, in New Brunswick, more than a year after the allegations have became public, no indictments have been handed up and its not clear if the Attorney General’s office is still pursuing a criminal case.
When the AG’s Office investigation started, the top law enforcement official in the state was Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who left the position to temporarily serve as a United States Senator after the death of Frank Lautenberg.
Instead, John Jay Hoffman, whose father has deep political ties to the Middlesex County power structure, has served as Attorney General for the past year and a half, largely staying out of New Brunswick.
City officials said that, even though O’Rourke is not a member of any labor union, he could not be fired without first being allowed to defend himself, or have an attorney represent his interests, in a disciplinary hearing.
He remains suspended without pay.
Citing the Attorney General’s investigation and DEP’s efforts to fine O’Rourke and suspend his water treatment license, city officials said they won’t schedule hold the hearing regarding his employment until those matters are resolved.
Meanwhile, the city itself was assessed a $355,000 civil administrative penalty by the DEP, but it has attempted to substitute an unspecified “Supplemental Environmental Project.”
“The penalty has not been paid,” said Jennifer Bradshaw, a spokesperson for Mayor James Cahill, adding that the city requested an administrative hearing and discussed “a potential reduction of the amount and the use of a Supplemental Environmental Project to mitigate and satisfy the penalty.”
“We’re still in talks with the DEP as to whether the City can use a Supplemental Environmental Project as part of the penalty and they’re hearing us out on this idea,” Bradshaw said on January 5.
“As far as New Brunswick is concerned, they were looking to explore a Supplemental Environmental Project,” confirmed DEP spokesperson Bob Considine. “The city has not submitted it as of yet. They have until March to submit it.”
O’Rourke also has yet to see an administrative hearing in either of his cases.
“A draft Facilitated Settlement Agreement has been worked upon and submitted to his attorney,” Considine told New Brunswick Today. “We await their signatures,” said Bob Considine.
Internally, New Brunswick Today’s questions about the status of O’Rourke’s case sparked some interesting discussion at the DEP.
“I do not know why or how this case was presented to our DEP staff but… there are relevant FACTS that were omitted from this case when it was presented to you,” the DEP’s Rita Thornton wrote in an internal email obtained by New Brunswick Today.
Thornton had been asked to confirm how the matter was resolved, and asked to verify the details of the settlement. But she told her co-workers that the matter had not been resolved.
“Because a Hearing Request was submitted by Mr. O’Rourke and then granted by the Office of Legal Affairs, I was allowed to negotiate with Mr. Edward Washburne, Esq. who is the legal counsel for Edward O’Rourke to see if the case could be settled before going to the Office of Administrative Law,” Thornton wrote.
Copies of a draft settlement agreement indicated the DEP was prepared to give O’Rourke a half-price discount on the $17,000 fine they had originally assessed.
“As part of Compliance and Enforcement’s Facilitated Settlement Program, the Department and EDWARD P. O’ROURKE legal representative Edward Washburne, Esq. participated in teleconference Facilitated Settlement Sessions on November 12, 2014 and December 4 and 5, 2014 in response to letters of interest dated October 23 and 29, 2014 with follow-up emails on December 10, 2014 whereby an agreement was made to settle this matter. “
In addition to the $8,500 fine, O’Rourke also agreed to have his water treatment license suspended for five years, according to the draft agreement.
It is not clear why the settlement agreement has not yet been signed.
“Nothing has been finalized so I kind of don’t have any news for you,” said O’Rourke’s attorney on December 31. He did not respond to a message left for him in February.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.