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New Jersey Herald, July 6, 2005

SPARTA'S WATER TRIGGERS LAWSUIT

By Brendan Berls

Staff Writer

Nearly 18 months after high levels of uranium were discovered in public wells serving about 600 customers in Sparta, three families have filed a lawsuit against the township, saying officials "knowingly and willfully" sold them contaminated water. The Cohen, Strickland and Finegan families want the township to compensate them for any long-term health problems and/or property damage caused by the radioactive element. They also want Sparta to pay for medical testing to monitor their health. "(The families') quality of life has deteriorated tremendously as a result of the uranium contamination in their drinking water," the lawsuit says. "Plaintiffs have been unable to drink their water bathe in their water, swim, grow vegetables in their garden, wash their cars, allow their children to play in their yards, or invite guests to their homes for fear that they too may be injured." The uranium was discovered in seven township-owned wells after new EPA rules went into effect requiring water systems with wells serving more than 25 customers to be tested for uranium by the end of 2007. Sparta lies over a granite formation called the Reading Prong, which stretches across much of New Jersey's Highlands region. Uranium, a naturally occurring metal, is known to form in fissures in the bedrock. While not as dangerous as contaminants like radon or radium, high levels of uranium in drinking water can slightly increase one's risks of kidney disease and certain types of cancer, according to a state- issued guidebook. A person who drinks two liters of uranium-tainted water per day for 70 years, for example, has a one-in-10,000 chance of getting cancer. Test results from the Seneca Lake system soon came back showing levels higher than 30 parts per billion, the EPA's allowable limit. Affected residents were notified on March 2004 and advised not to drink or cook with tap water, although things like bathing and brushing teeth were still considered safe. The seven wells were shut down while untainted water was rerouted into the Seneca system from two other sections of the Sparta. The drinking- water ban was lifted after about a month.

Sparta was the first town in New Jersey to test for uranium and the first to find it, but Shari Blecher, the lawyer who filed the suit, said officials should have done the tests long before.

"Just because something's not mandated doesn't mean you shouldn't be testing for it," said Blecher, whose Princeton law firm, Lieberman & Blecher, concentrates in environmental litigation.

"They knew the unique geology of the area. They should have taken every precaution," she said, characterizing the township's efforts to remediate the situation "too little, too late."

The suit was filed Thursday, but township officials had not yet seen it Tuesday and could not comment on it directly.

"We can't control what's in the rocks," Mayor Ailish Hambel said, adding that the township had been diligent in following the new requirements.

It was not immediately clear whether other towns with public water supplies had begun uranium testing ahead of the December 2007 deadline. Water departments in Sussex County municipalities did not immediately return calls Tuesday afternoon.

Municipal Engineer Charles Ryan said two of the seven tainted wells -- the Panorama and Seneca Lake wells -- have been shut down permanently and are being demolished. Another, one of the three Greentree wells, has been brought back online after a series of subsequent uranium tests came up negative.

At the two Autumn Hill wells, utility workers are about to begin a pilot program with technology designed to scrub uranium out of the water. The study begins next week, Ryan said.

Copyright 2005 The New Jersey Herald