NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two top officials at a northern New Jersey municipal water authority falsified records and shut down contaminated wells in advance of safety tests to hide elevated levels of a contaminant, the state attorney general's office charged in an indictment released Wednesday.
The indictment was handed up Tuesday against 58-year-old Harry Mansmann, of Lawrenceville, the executive director of the East Orange Water Commission, and assistant executive director and engineer William Mowell, 51, of Wyckoff.
They are charged with conspiracy, records tampering, unlawfully releasing toxic pollutants and multiple counts of official misconduct and violating state environmental laws.
The water authority serves about 90,000 customers in East Orange and South Orange, which are adjacent to Newark in Essex County. South Orange is the home of Seton Hall University.
The two are accused of seeking to hide the presence of tetrachloroethene, known as PERC, a solvent used for dry cleaning and in other industries that is classified as a probable carcinogen. As part of the alleged conspiracy, they are charged with directing that water that had PERC levels as high as 25 times the allowable level to be discharged onto the banks of the Passaic River in Florham Park over the span of four weeks in the spring of 2011.
Mansmann didn't return a message seeking comment, but his attorney, John Vazquez, said his client was innocent and that discrepancies that existed in the PERC levels didn't merit criminal charges.
"Even under the government's claims, no one was put at risk," Vazquez said in an email. "This is not a safety issue. At all times, all levels were well within the federal safety standards. Essentially, the dispute concerns tenths of a percentage point. Criminal allegations for such small discrepancies are unusual to say the least."
Reached at home Wednesday, Mowell declined to comment. His attorney, Michael Baldassare, called his client "a dedicated professional and a well-respected member of his community" who "will defend himself against these allegations as the case proceeds."
Long-term exposure to high levels of tetrachloroethene in drinking water can cause cancer, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Lower levels can contribute to kidney and liver problems.
New Jersey allows 1 part per billion of tetrachloroethene in water supplies, lower than the federal limit of 5 parts per billion. The stricter standard is due to New Jersey's industrial past and history of chemical spills going back several decades, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said.
The alleged crimes occurred between November 2010 and August 2011 — at a time when the DEP had switched the East Orange Water Commission from quarterly to monthly monitoring because of concerns about gradually rising contaminant levels, Ragonese said.
The indictment charges Mansmann and Mowell with shutting down contaminated wells to artificially reduce levels of PERC, and with taking multiple samples and only submitting the lowest sample. For example, of four samples testing as high as 1.96 parts per billion in April 2011, only a sample that tested at .788 was submitted to the DEP, the indictment says.
"We're relying on the water companies to do the testing, and we expect every company to provide us with reliable and accurate information," Ragonese said.
The conspiracy and official misconduct charges and the one count of unlawfully releasing pollutants are second-degree crimes with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine up to $150,000. The other charges are third-degree crimes and punishable by a maximum sentence of five years and a fine up to $15,000.