A Brick man has pleaded guilty to falsifying drinking water purity testing data to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, a plea that will likely result in a three year-long prison term.
Edward O’Rourke, 60, was employed as the licensed operator of the New Brunswick and Milltown public drinking water systems in Middlesex County. He pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree corruption of public resources and third-degree violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act before Superior Court Judge Alberto Rivas in Middlesex County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that O’Rourke be sentenced to three years in state prison on each of the charges, with the sentences to run concurrently.
Rivas scheduled sentencing for O’Rourke for Feb. 8.
In pleading guilty, O’Rourke admitted that between April 2010 and Dec. 2012, he “repeatedly and intentionally” submitted false water purity testing data to the DEP in order to hide the fact that he had failed to properly oversee the testing of drinking water samples on behalf of New Brunswick and Milltown. While the investigation did not reveal any evidence that water samples ever tested positive for coliform bacteria, O’Rourke’s failure to correctly test and accurately report water purity information to the DEP meant that regulators were not able to determine whether there were any pathogens in the water pumped to the public during the relevant 33-month period, state officials said.
The DEP referred the case to the Division of Criminal Justice after auditing by the DEP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed discrepancies in testing data.
“If O’Rourke had simply been honest from the start about any failure to comply with the requirements for water purity testing, he would not be facing such stern punishment,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “But he lied hundreds of times. Prison is the right penalty for such flagrant dishonesty, given that we’re talking about regulations designed to protect the public’s health.”
Coliform bacteria analysis for both the New Brunswick and Milltown drinking water systems was handled through New Brunswick’s certified environmental laboratory. In addition to being licensed operator for the two systems, O’Rourke was the manager of the New Brunswick laboratory. The investigation revealed that O’Rourke and his staff were not consistently following proper testing protocols and therefore they frequently did not have samples and data that were compliant with federal and state testing requirements. Rather that disclosing that the testing data was not compliant, O’Rourke falsified data and information in order to appear to be compliant.
The state’s investigation revealed that during the relevant period, O’Rourke submitted reports on well over 200 samples that contained one or more types of falsified data capable of invalidating the entire result. Examples of false information and data that were submitted by O’Rourke included: false testing dates designed to cover up the fact that water samples were not tested within the approved 30-hour timeframe for a valid test; false information that a sample was taken at an approved sampling location within the water system when it actually was taken at an unapproved location; false data that was fabricated because a particular sample was never tested at all; and data that was obtained using a testing method for which the lab was not certified but that was falsely reported as having been obtained using a certified method.
“O’Rourke had a duty to oversee these two water systems in a manner that ensured the quality and safety of the drinking water supplied to tens of thousands of residents, and he not only failed to perform proper testing, he lied about the tests that were performed to cover up his failure,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “O’Rourke callously disregarded the health consequences that might have flowed from his failure to obey the law and accurately monitor the water supplied to these communities.”