N.J. Attorney’s Office charges South River operator with falsifying water tests

SOUTH RIVER–Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a licensed operator for the South River Water Department has been charged with allegedly submitting false water samples.

Robert Baker, 56, of Mine Hill, was charged on June 12 with submitting false water samples and records to a lab that tests samples for coliform bacteria for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), according to a prepared statement from the Office of the Attorney General.

South River Mayor John Krenzel said Baker worked for the borough’s water department for nine years.

He has been charged with a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, a third-degree crime. He was charged in an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, and the South River Police Department, according to the Office of the Attorney General.

Since Baker’s allegations, Krenzel said “[the borough] has retained a temporary licensed operator to take care of the day-to-day operations of our water treatment facility.”

The joint investigation began last month after the South River Police Department developed information that Baker allegedly was submitting false water samples for testing. In accordance with the South River Water Department’s sampling schedule, Baker, as a licensed operator, is required to collect samples of drinking water from eight locations throughout South River to be tested for coliform bacteria, according to a prepared statement.

Samples are taken twice a month, with 15 samples required in total. However, it is alleged that Baker, who is the sole employee who collects such samples, only visited certain locations, while submitting false samples for other locations, according to the statement.

The Division of Criminal Justice and South River Police Department conducted surveillance of Baker on two recent sampling dates. On May 21, Baker allegedly did not go to at least four of the eight designated sample collection sites, according to a prepared statement.

Despite not visiting those locations, Baker allegedly supplied filled sample vials to a courier for the testing lab with labels indicating they had been collected on that date from seven of the eight locations, including the four locations he failed to visit. The lab tested the samples and reported the results directly to the DEP, as required by state law, according to the statement.

Baker also was scheduled to conduct sampling on June 11. Based on surveillance, it is alleged that he failed to go to any of the eight sampling sites. Nonetheless, prior to his arrest, Baker supplied the courier for the lab with eight filled vials purportedly collected at all eight sampling sites, according to a prepared statement.

“Today’s charges reflect our commitment to protecting New Jersey’s environment and the health of our residents through all the tools at our disposal, whether civil or criminal,” Grewal said in the statement. “That means going after big companies who pollute our environment, filing charges against individuals who illegally dump waste and hazardous materials, and now bringing charges for the failure to properly test a town’s safe drinking water.”

To ensure the safety of the drinking water in South River, the DEP collected its own water samples last week from various public points in the water system to test for coliform bacteria. The samples were tested and the results were negative for coliform bacteria, affirming the safety of the drinking water.

“The attorneys and detectives in our Environmental Crimes Unit are trained to investigate and prosecute crimes that threaten our environment and public health,” Veronica Allende, director of the Division of Criminal Justice, said in the statement. “We will continue to deploy our expertise and resources to protect the residents of New Jersey, in collaboration with the DEP and our law enforcement partners.”

The DEP has initiated an independent regulatory action involving Baker and the South River Water Department. Grewal thanked the DEP for its valuable assistance, according to the statement.

“My overall thoughts are to make sure that our drinking water is maintained in a manner to meet all the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. In other words, to make sure that the water is safe to drink. The DEP has tested it and found that the water is safe,” Krenzel explained.

Grewal commended the South River Police Department and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office for their work on the joint investigation. Lt. John McKenna and Detective Joseph Guiamano were the lead detectives for the South River Police Department and Detective Nicholas Chiorello was the lead detective for the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, according to the statement.

Third degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $15,000.

Because the charge is an indictable offense, the case will be presented to a grand jury for potential indictment, according to the statement.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.