TRENTON — A former top official of the East Orange Water Commission admitted today to conspiring to hide elevated levels of an industrial solvent in drinking water pumped to more than 80,000 residents in the city and neighboring South Orange, state authorities said.
William Mowell, 52, of Wyckoff, the former assistant executive director and engineer, pleaded guilty to conspiring with the agency’s former executive director, Harry Mansmann, to falsify levels of tetrachloroethene to show the water was safe to drink, the state Attorney General’s Office said.
Exposure to the chemical, used for dry cleaning and other purposes, over a prolonged period of time is a potential cancer risk, according to the federal health department. But state Department of Environmental Protection officials said their own testing showed residents were not at risk and the water was safe.
“Mowell should have used his expertise to act as an environmental watchdog, protecting the water supply and alerting the DEP and the public of problems,” Elie Honig, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, said in a statement. “However, he chose to use his knowledge and skills to cover up a significant contamination issue.”
An attorney for Mowell, Michael Baldassare, said his client’s conduct “was atypical and stands in stark contrast to William’s long history of professionalism and hard work.”
“Indeed, many professionals and friends stand by him to this day,” Baldassare said.
The commission pumps water from wells in eastern Morris and western Essex counties to two reservoirs. The agency then blends the water at its treatment plant before it is distributed in order to reduce the risk from contamination in any one well.
In pleading guilty, Mowell admitted that in March and April 2011, he took samples after contaminated wells had been turned off for several days, knowing the test results would not accurately reflect the composition of the water once those wells were restarted.
Mowell also admitted and he and Mansmann attempted to flush the chemical from the most contaminated well, which had levels as high as 25 times the safe drinking limit, by pumping it onto the bank of the Passaic River in Florham Park, authorities said.
The pair also issued a false public notice stating that pumping had been reduced from certain wells on an ongoing basis and that levels were in line with state standards, Mowell admitted, when in fact the levels of the chemical were too high.
Investigators alleged Mowell and Mansmann took the actions to avoid building an expensive water purification plant that would remove the chemical from the water.
Mowell — who was indicted last year with Mansmann, who has since died —
pleaded guilty to conspiring to engage in a pattern of official misconduct, tampering with public records, and violating the state drinking water and water pollution control acts.
Under the plea bargain, state prosecutors will recommend he be sentenced to three years in prison.