NJ town pays $300K to ex-employee who says he was told to fix water tests
Sparta Township has agreed to pay a former Utilities Department employee $300,000 to settle a whistleblower lawsuit in which he claims he was instructed to change the method used to treat the municipal water supply to ensure better results when testing for copper and lead.
The lawsuit, which was filed May 21, 2013 by Mark Nelson, a former pumping station operator, claims that when he refused to alter the testing method, his superiors retaliated against him.
According to the suit, around June of 2010, during the water testing cycle, Nelson was was directed by Municipal Utilities Director Philip Spaldi "to increase the lead and copper treatment dosage to be placed in the water just before the samples were taken for testing." The suit claims this was done in order to get "good" or acceptable sampling results "with regard to lead and copper levels in the water."
Nathan refused, the suit claims, telling his direct supervisor Michael Sportelli that the water sample sent to the lab for testing "should be consistent with the water being distributed to the public."
As a result, Nathan was removed from water testing duties and Sportelli took over, the suit claims. The lawsuit also claims that Nathan complained to his superiors about the lead and copper treatment mechanisms being turned off at two pump stations, saying he felt doing so resulted in "an increased likelihood of contaminated water being present in the township's water supply to its residents."
According to the suit, Sportelli "dismissed" Nelson's concerns. Instead, Sportelli responded and "sarcastically" told him, "We don't put the lead and copper in the water," Nelson says in the lawsuit.
NJ DEP records for 2010 and 2011 show no violations regarding lead or copper in Sparta Township's water system, NJ Advance Media reported. According to an annual DEP compliance report for 2014, Sparta did not have any copper or lead violations for that year either. The township also met water standards in 2015. The tests are conducted every three years.
In 2012, Nelson claims, water samples were taken from two of the township's "pressure areas." The suit claims the lead and copper samples were "non-compliant" but were "not used for reporting purposes."
When Nelson attempted to bring his concerns to former Township Manager David Troast, the suit claims, the manager refused to discuss the issues and would only talk to him about the disciplinary actions against him.
On April 13, a confidential settlement was agreed upon by Nelson and the township and signed by Mayor Christine Quinn on May 2. Quinn has not responded to requests for comment.
As is typical in a settlement, the township admits no wrongdoing.
Sparta also withdrew the disciplinary actions against Nelson, which included a 30-day suspension and a $10,000 pay reduction. Nelson claims in the suit that he had been written up six times for "job performance deficiencies."
Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.
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