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By Katie Worth

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, April 20) - If you've been drinking any of Saipan's water over the last few years, you may have been drinking water tainted with coliform or fecal coliform bacteria.

The manager of the laboratory at Saipan's water utility has been accused of falsifying water quality tests to make it appear that the water is clean, even when it tested positive for coliform and fecal coliform bacteria, alleges a federal indictment unsealed yesterday by the U.S. Attorney's office.

The indictment charged Pedro "Pete" Q. Babauta, the laboratory manager in the Water Division of the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., with one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and four counts of submitting false documents to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Environmental Quality, which is within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Babauta allegedly falsified the data between April 1999 and June 2003, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Smith, who is in charge of the prosecution of the case.

Though coliform bacteria itself is not generally harmful to human health, its presence in a water supply can indicate the presence of other more harmful bacteria, the indictment states. The presence of fecal coliform bacteria indicates that human or animal wastes may be contaminating the water, it stated.

However, Dr. Robert Haddock, Guam's territorial epidemiologist, said that if people did not show symptoms of illness immediately after being exposed to the contaminated water, they most likely are fine.

Haddock said that Guam's Department of Public Health and Social Services has not noticed a pattern of people returning to Guam from Saipan with illness that could be attributed to a tainted water supply.

Smith said that most people in Saipan do not generally drink the public drinking water, but instead drink bottled water. However, he said, they do usually bathe, wash dishes and clean vegetables with the water.

The indictment details six dates during a four-year period in which Babauta allegedly submitted monthly test data with falsified information.

In each case, Babauta allegedly provided information to the utilities corporation, which in turn submitted that information to the CNMI Division of Environmental Quality. The U.S. EPA has made Division of Environmental Quality administrators responsible for regulating Saipan's water under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The indictment states that in some cases, Babauta allegedly falsified information to indicate that all the water samples taken had tested negative for the bacteria. In others, he allegedly reduced the number of positive results for the bacteria, or simply omitted entire series of samples that showed positive results for bacteria, the indictment said.

Smith said that the U.S. Attorney's office became involved with the case last June when it was publicly reported that an investigation into the water agency had revealed falsified data.

Smith could not comment on what Babauta's motivation for allegedly falsifying the information might have been.

The indictment mentions "others known and unknown" who knowingly conspired to falsify the information and therefore defraud the U.S. EPA, but Smith said that so far, only Babauta has been charged with conspiracy.

April 20, 2004

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