One of the things government actually does rather well is regulate the safety of drinking water delivered to your tap.
Whether your water comes from a commercial provider or a public utility, there are strict state and federal standards regarding the frequency of testing, maximum contaminant levels and public notification of test results.
If initial tests indicate the presence of a pollutant above the maximum contaminant level, follow-up tests are taken. If the initial finding is confirmed, the supplier is required to either improve the water treatment or find another source of water.
Ventnor and Hammonton residents recently got lessons in this process.
An initial test in Ventnor indicated that coliform bacteria had been detected. That triggered the required public notice - which always scares some people. But follow-up tests were all negative.
In Hammonton, tests revealed levels of radium and a volatile organic compound, both of which are possible carcinogens. Wells were shut down. The required notices went out. And a new $1.7 million filtration system went online last month. The problem, which stretched over several years, is being addressed, and both the town and the state Department of Environmental Protection will continue monitoring the situation.
That's how the system is supposed to work.
We tell you this so you don't overreact the next time you get one of those notices and so that you don't needlessly worry about your water. (And, of course, if you think we are naive about all this, you are free to drill your own well or buy bottled water from whatever "all-natural, contaminant-free, pure-as-the-mountain snow" source you can find.)
Of course, any system is only as good as the people running it. And a case out of East Orange is downright scary.
The executive director and the assistant executive director of the East Orange Water Commission have been indicted on criminal charges of falsifying testing data to hide elevated levels of an industrial solvent - tetrachloroethene - in the water the agency is supplying.
The state attorney general alleges that the two men falsified the data to avoid having to purchase water from another source or install expensive treatment equipment. If convicted of the most serious charges, they could face 10 years in prison. The DEP has also fined the East Orange Water Commission $400,000 in connection with the matter.
The commission and the two men - Harry Mansmann, of Lawrenceville, and William Mowell, of Wyckoff, contest the charges. They will have their day in court. But if convicted, there should be a special place in hell for anyone who deliberately circumvented safe-drinking water laws.
Even here, however, there is reassuring news:
If they did do it, they got caught.