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By John Ravelo

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 25) - The Division of
Environmental Quality has threatened to revoke the Commonwealth Utilities
Corp.'s laboratory certification after it was found that the utility
intentionally concealed the microbiological quality of its drinking water.

The DEQ found out during a surprise inspection that CUC's water
sampling records were being tampered to the extent that "data [were]
inappropriately modified using 'white-out' and other means to conceal the
original information."

A DEQ review disclosed that water samples from CUC Saipan's PWS
had positive coliform growth, contrary to what the utility firm had been
representing to the DEQ.

"Our review indicates the CUC Laboratory intentionally
falsified data and performed other deceptive practices to conceal the true
microbiological quality of the drinking water being served to the public by the
public water system," according to acting DEQ director Gloria Castro.

Castro, however, said that the matter is still at the
administrative level. She said DEQ has not referred the matter yet to the U.S.
Attorney's Office or the CNMI Attorney General Office.

In a letter to CUC executive director Lorraine Babauta last
week, Castro said the DEQ has sufficient grounds to revoke the utility firm's
laboratory certification. Once done, CUC will no longer be authorized to analyze
drinking water sampling tests in its Sadog Tasi facility for regulatory

The letter gave the CUC 30 days to challenge the DEQ's decision.
Currently, the laboratory can still continue normal operations until the DEQ
finally decides to effect the revocation.

Castro said, though, that DEQ would immediately revoke the
laboratory's certification after 30 days from the issuance of its letter last
week if the CUC fails to file a timely appeal. She said this would also happen
should the DEQ decide to deny the CUC's appeal, if it does so.

"On numerous occasions, data [were] falsified by reporting
negative coliform growth to DEQ when, in fact, field and branch records show
that the samples had positive coliform growth," Castro said. "On
numerous occasions, positive coliform results were simply not reported to DEQ."

The DEQ said the CUC had conducted more sampling tests than what
were reported to the agency. Castro said the CUC's failure to sufficiently
respond to DEQ's requests about drinking water quality triggered the unannounced

Among the documents being asked by the DEQ were those pertaining
to coliform bacteria analytical results from the CUC's distribution system, as
well as those about the collection, analysis and reporting of coliform samples
from unchlorinated locations throughout the system.

"DEQ had requested all data be included in CUC's April 2003
monthly bacteriological report to the division. Because all requested data were
not provided in the April report, DEQ performed the inspection," the acting
director said.

The DEQ also communicated the matter to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency.

The intent to revoke CUC's laboratory certification is separate
from the compliance order the DEQ had issued the utility firm, which listed 21
drinking water violations.

DEQ director John I. Castro Jr. had expressed concern that the
situation is also likely in CUC's water systems on Tinian and Rota, a scenario
that poses a threat to the CNMI's public health.

The issuance of the compliance order prompted the House
committee on health and welfare to plan an oversight hearing on the water

"The violations reflect significant problems with
infrastructure deficiencies, lack of knowledge of drinking water regulations,
and intentional withholding of information that potentially threatens the health
of CUC customers," the director earlier said.

Besides CUC's failure to monitor coliform bacteria on its PWS
several times, the DEQ said the former failed to properly operate its airport
rain catchment slow sand filter in accordance with good engineering practices.
Thus, the DEQ said the CUC failed to reliably achieve 99.9-percent removal or
inactivation of Giardia lamblia cysts and viruses.

The CUC also failed to install filtration at the Achugao and
Tanapag I and II springs, as well as in notifying the public of the failure to
apply the applicable water treatment technique several times. It also failed to
monitor lead and copper tap samples for two consecutive six-month periods from
January 1 to July 1 in both 2001 and 2002.

June 25, 2003

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