Contaminated Water in East Orange/ South Orange is More than a Health Issue


This past Friday, William Mowell, former member of the East Orange Water Commission, pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal high levels of the industrial solvent tetrachloroethylene in the water supply. The East Orange water supply pumps water to nearly 80,000 residents in the city of East Orange and the neighboring village of South Orange. In the most contaminated wells, the level  of tetrachloroethylene, a chemical used in dry cleaning, was nearly 25 times the safe drinking limit.
Mowell was indicted last year, along with the commission’s former executive director Harry Mansmann. Mansmann died in March of cancer. In accordance with the plea deal, Mowell faces three years in prison.
While the city of East Orange has largely downplayed the potential health ramifications of this cover-up, exposure to tetrachloroethylene should not be taken lightly. It is a known carcinogen that can enter the body through respiratory and dermal exposure. That means the water contamination not only effected those who drank it, but those who bathed in it as well… basically, everyone.
Still, the contamination would have the greatest health impact on those who regularly drink tap water. According to the EPA, some people who drink water containing excess tetrachloroethylene  over many years could have problems with their liver and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.
There is a socioeconomic angle to this story. Contaminated water was being pumped to East Orange and South Orange, two very different towns. South Orange is a small township where  the median household income is $123,000 and 7.8 percent live below the poverty line. East Orange is a large city where the median household income is closer to $40,000 and 20% live below the poverty line. Hence, in East Orange, where the bulk of the water flows, people are far more likely to rely on tap water for actual consumption. Consider all of the fast food restaurants in East Orange alone. The soda machine… tap water.
All over the world, poverty and lack of access to clean drinking water are inextricably linked and we are seeing this humanitarian issue play out right here in NJ as well.
There are so many questions that remain unanswered. How long was the public exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical?  Citations from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection date  back to 2010.
Right now, the city of East Orange is spending millions purchasing water from neighboring towns, primarily Newark. In fact, the commission allegedly falsified the numbers in order to avoid spending millions purchasing clean waters, or investing in the infrastructure required to treat the contaminated water.
As of the DEP’s latest study, the water  is still very contaminated and requires at least $20 million in repair to the pipes and filtration equipment, money the city, at the moment, does not have. So how will the new administration over-haul the water system and how can residents trust that the water they cook with, bathe with and drink is in fact clean? Residents of both town should definitely demand answers and greater transparency in the future.


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