PITTSFIELD -- The former director of a water testing lab was given two years of probation after pleading guilty to 58 charges related to falsified water reports.
Judge John A. Agostini called William Enser's actions "a real concern" when sentencing the 64-year-old Lee man to probation with conditions that include his no longer working in the water testing industry.
On Tuesday in Berkshire Superior Court, Enser pleaded guilty to 29 charges each of knowingly falsifying reports and willfully making false reports to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Enser backdated drinking water sample analyses between 2008 and 2012 in order to feign compliance with environmental laws and had his employees take several samples from water testing sites and submit only those that passed in 2012 and 2013, according to the state Attorney General's Office.
At the time of the misconduct, Enser was the director of Berkshire Enviro-Labs, which provided water-testing services to hundreds of clients, including many Berkshire County cities and towns, and was responsible for monitoring the safety of public drinking water.
According to Assistant Attorney General Sara Farnum, it was a routine audit by the state DEP in June 2012 that first uncovered discrepancies in paperwork related to testing for the presence of nitrates and nitrites. The tests are only reliable if done within 48 hours of the samples being taken, and these had the dates changed to reflect that they had been tested within the required time frame when they had not, she said.
The DEP found a number of these falsified reports that had been filed, and in September 2012 the AG's Office began an investigation into the allegations, the AG's Office alleged.
Enser admitted he had asked an employee to back date one sample and that in the other cases the backdating had been done under a "general company directive," which he was responsible for.
Farnum, of the AG's Environmental Crimes Strike Force, said that after Enser was charged with the initial crimes, it was discovered he had "engaged in more serious tampering" involving water testing of sites for the presence of E. coli, a potentially lethal contaminant. He asked his employees to take several samples from a water source and submit only those that passed.
The sites where the samples in question came from include The American Institute for Economic Research and Bard College at Simon's Rock, both in Great Barrington, as well the Savoy Elementary School, the Berkshire School in Sheffield, the New Boston Inn in Sandisfield, and the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough, among others.
In one case in October 2012, he directed an employee to take water from the tap at Enviro-Labs in Lee and misreport that it came from a public water supply in Richmond that contained bacteria, Farnum said.
According to Enser's attorney, Jeffrey T. Scrimo, in that instance, Enser was working in extreme pain after having his pain medication cut off in preparation for a second hip replacement and had no memory of the event "one way or the other," and so was unable to deny it happened.
Enser acknowledged that he didn't follow proper procedure in connection with directing staff to take several samples, but based on his 30 years of experience, he believed it was a problem with contamination of the equipment or at the lab, and not at the water sources, said Scrimo.
"He made the wrong choice," said the attorney.
Scrimo said the public was never at risk since most of the allegedly contaminated water tested positive for the presence of "standard total coliform" said Scrimo, and not E. coli.
Standard total coliform are a variety of bacteria found in the intestines of warm- blooded animals, are present in sewage, and are considered "an indicator organism." The standard total coliform doesn't cause diseases, but usually indicates the presence of other organisms that might.
Farnum asked the court to sentence Enser to jail for one year, followed by two years of probation, refrain from working in the water testing field, write an apology letter to the public to be printed in The Berkshire Eagle and donate $100,000 to the state Natural Resources Damages Program, which supports projects that restore damaged water resources in Massachusetts.
The prosecutor cited the potential harm Enser's actions could have had on public health and safety and the number of occasions in which he had violated the law as reasons for the sentence recommendation.
Scrimo's request was for no jail time and no apology letter, but agreed with the rest of the conditions.
The lawyer said his client had no previous criminal record and that in the hundreds of thousands of water tests done by Berkshire Enviro-Labs in its 30-year history there were only a handful of reports with problems.
Enser had no financial gain from his actions and has already suffered "significant collateral issues" that include the dismantling of the business he spent 30 years building and the fact he will no longer be able to work in his field.
Agostini said he wouldn't sentence Enser to jail due in part to his age and ill health, but gave him probation with the outlined conditions and ordered him to write an apology letter.
"I've never issued [an apology letter] before. The public should be more engaged in this case because it affects them directly," said the judge.
This was the third attempt to resolve the case short of trial. On previous occasions, the latest being about two weeks ago, plea negotiations broke down.
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