2 officials of public water commission in NJ accused of hiding contaminant in drinking water

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 bank 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 had no immediate comment.

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.