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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Uranium in water spurs plan for lawsuit

BY JIM LOCKWOOD
Star-Ledger Staff

A trio of Sparta families has given legal notice that they intend to sue the township over uranium found in drinking water in the Seneca Lake area.

Yesterday, the town received hand-delivered "notices of tort claim," which are precursors to a lawsuit against a governmental entity, from 10 residents in three separate families.

High levels of uranium were found in Sparta's Seneca Lake water system after new EPA rules went into effect in December requiring water systems fed by wells serving 25 or more people to be tested for uranium by 2007.

Seneca Lake's system was the first in the state to find too much uranium in well water. Residents in 600 affected homes were notified March 9 about the problem and advised not to drink tap water, though it could still have been used safely for bathing, laundry and brushing teeth.

The advisory lasted 36 days until new safe wells were connected, and Seneca Lake's water supply has since been deemed safe for drinking.

A future lawsuit would seek various unspecified damages for medical monitoring, diminished quality- of-life and property value, as well as compensatory and possible punitive damages, said Shari Blecher, the attorney for the families.

"It will be a defective-product lawsuit. They sold my clients bad water -- period," Blecher said. "When you know that you're in an area that's rich in uranium and you're selling drinking water to thousands of people, clearly your duty to those people goes up a little bit. Do you just have to comply with federal regulations?"

Sparta Mayor Jim Henderson replied, "Give me a break. I think it (suing the town over uranium) is ridiculous."

Uranium exists in bedrock granite that wells tap in a billion-year- old rock formation that is the oldest in the state and stretches across western Passaic and Morris counties and parts of Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon counties.

A naturally occurring radioactive element and chemical, uranium can cause cancer or kidney toxicity if too much is ingested over a long time, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. After more than a decade of review, the EPA set a maximum contaminant level for uranium at 30 micrograms per liter.

At a March 24 public forum, state and town officials told a crowd that the health risks from drinking the water were minimal, and a person drinking 2 liters of water a day with 30 micrograms of uranium for 70 years would have a one-in-10,000 chance of getting cancer.

However, Blecher likened the problem to much more severe radiation contamination. She also believes such a lawsuit regarding uranium in drinking water would be the first of its kind.

"Uranium is like Chernobyl," Blecher said, referring to the world's worst nuclear power-plant disaster in the former Soviet Union in 1986. "I hate to say that, (but) it's uranium. It's a big problem."

Henderson said, "I don't get the connection between Chernobyl and that (uranium in drinking water). We didn't put it there."

The families, who are not close neighbors, do not know each other, Blecher said.

The residents who filed the tort- claim notices are Kern and Sharon Strickland and their daughter, Barrette; Gerard and Sally Finegan and their children, Christina and Stephen; and Jeffrey and Suzanne Cohen and their daughter, Alyson.

Blecher also takes issue with the town's public notification of uranium. In a statement issued Friday to various media in New Jersey and New York, Blecher said Sparta "failed to inform" residents that there is a 90-day deadline from March 9 to file a notice of tort claim.

Henderson and Underhill said they believe the town's notification was adequate and complied with law.

People filing tort-claim notices must wait six months to file a lawsuit. In the meantime, the town should use that six months to reach an amicable resolution and avoid the lawsuit, Blecher said.

Henderson said, "If they're going to sue, then let them. My reaction would be we're not negotiating over this."

Jim Lockwood can be reached at jlockwood@starledger.com or (973) 383-0516.
Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger. Used by NJ.com with permission.