New Brunswick Has Yet to Settle $355,000 Fine for Water Issues

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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The city hasn’t paid a $355,000 penalty it received several years ago for violations by the water utility—and conversations with the state regarding an alternative remedy have slowed, according to officials.

From 2010 through spring 2013, a former operator for the New Brunswick Water Utility “repeatedly” submitted inaccurate quality reports and test results to the state Department of Environmental Protection. He also failed to alert customers to problems with their water, according to the state.

Edward O’Rourke, the operator, reportedly pleaded guilty to corruption of public resources and water violations in late 2015. He surrendered his state-issued license and, after being suspended without pay, resigned from the utility. He was sentenced to three years in prison but has since been released on parole, according to the state Department of Corrections.

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State environmental officials said in November 2013 that they found “no direct evidence that public health was impacted” by his actions.

The utility, meanwhile, “immediately” took steps to improve reporting and testing procedures, along with the quality of the water pumped throughout New Brunswick and portions of Milltown and Franklin, according to the state.

The state eventually lodged a $355,000 fine against New Brunswick for the incident. Roughly two years later, the tab is still open, city and state officials said.

City Administrator Thomas Loughlin III said during a recent council meeting that New Brunswick officials hope to solve the problem with a “supplemental environmental project.” That means the city would bankroll an infrastructure improvement in place of paying a fine.

“It’s still a live discussion,” he said last week, “but we haven’t had a meaningful conversation [with the state DEP] in about a year and a half.”

At issue, Loughlin said, is a “lack of communication” between the two entities.

Bob Considine, a DEP spokesperson, told TAPinto New Brunswick that both parties have yet to cement plans for a specific environmental project. No timetable has been set, either, he said.

“The punitive necessity has been addressed,” he added, referencing O’Rourke, who also reportedly paid $8,500 in fines to the DEP.

City officials had hoped to perform storm-water improvements to a tributary of the Delaware & Raritan Canal in Franklin, Loughlin said. The state’s position on that proposal is unclear.

The D&R Canal and Westons Mill Pond feed water to the utility. It’s then distributed to tens of thousands of people in the area.

State environmental officials intend to pinpoint a “mutually acceptable and beneficial” project that’s in line with DEP policy, Considine said.

Since the violations, the city has tapped a number of people to head the water utility. Its current executive director, Mark Lavenberg, has held the job for nearly two years.

New Brunswick has also initiated water infrastructure upgrades in recent years.

“We, of course, have tried to focus on other things and continue to improve the utility as best we can,” Loughlin said during the meeting.

Even so, the utility has confronted some challenges in terms of water quality. Last summer, for instance, a contaminant showed up in tests at “unusually high levels,” resulting in a violation, according to city documents.

But the utility has responded to subsequent issues with notifications to the public, like boil-water advisories. That sort of measure was one O’Rourke admitted to skipping.

State and federal environmental officials uncovered his misdeeds in 2013, after a new executive director came on and “reported a problem” with water clarity measurements, according to the DEP.

That issue was “quickly resolved,” according to the state, but it prompted a deeper look into internal records surrounding water quality. That scan spanned logbooks and other documents that ultimately inform the reports that the utility is required to file with state monitors.

After months of work, investigators alleged that the New Brunswick Water Utility had submitted false reports regarding water clarity and quality and used outdated charts that spurred incorrect calculations for tests.

The reports and tests in question dealt with waterborne pathogens whose presence above a certain level tends to signal trouble.

In 2013, an assistant commissioner for the DEP said the city utility had made “necessary and appropriate” strides to correct the problems and to ensure “that the city’s waster is safe for consumption.”

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