WMATA Pleads Guilty to Negligently Discharging Corrosive Wastewater

Court Orders $200,000 Fine, 18 Months Probation and Quarterly Inspections

November 25, 2009

Greenbelt, Maryland - The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), pleaded guilty today to the negligent discharge of wastewater containing hydrofluoric acid to the pipes and sewers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (“WSSC”), in violation of WSSC’s pretreatment standard for pH, and in violation of the Clean Water Act, announced United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.

After taking the plea, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus ordered WMATA to pay a fine of $200,000, imposed 18 months of probation and further ordered WMATA to permit quarterly EPA/WSSC inspections of the Branch Avenue Rail Yard and publicize this criminal violation internally to its employees.

According to the plea agreement, WMATA owned and operated several rail yard facilities throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area, including the New Carrollton Rail Yard, which had equipment to wash the aluminum exterior surface of the railroad cars or “rail cars” used in WMATA’s “Metro Rail” subway system. The wastewater from this automated wash operation underwent neutralization and was reused prior to being discharged to the sanitary sewer.

According to the statement of facts, in 1985, WMATA contracted with a privately-owned business to clean or “restore” the exterior surface of the rail cars because the automated washing of rail cars did not remove the heavy soil and oxides that accumulated on the rail cars’ aluminum exterior surface during the course of their use. The contractor used a process that involved hand washing the exterior surface using various chemicals, including hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid is an extremely corrosive and hazardous chemical, known for its ability to dissolve metal oxides, including aluminum oxides. The chemicals used by the contractor had to be approved by WMATA to insure that the chemicals and rinses could be safely disposed without additional treatment through the existing waste water system at the New Carrollton Yard carwash. From 1985 through February, 2003, hydrofluoric acid was approved by WMATA to be used by the contractor for hand-washing WMATA rail cars.

On May 12, 2003, a portion of the underground sewer pipe closest to the hand wash operation failed due to severe corrosion, and wastewater began to back up in the rail car wash shed. After further inspection, WMATA concluded that wastewater from the hand wash operation had not been captured and treated by the neutralization and recycling system in place at the facility and ceased hand-wash operations at New Carrollton on May 13, 2003 and transferred the operations to WMATA’s Branch Avenue Rail Yard on June 3, 2003. The Branch Avenue facility had the newest and most complete recycling and neutralization system within the WMATA system, and all of the drains within the wash facility shed were properly connected to the wastewater recycling and neutralization system. However, the pH probes in the wastewater neutralization and recycling system (used to automatically calibrate the flow of neutralization chemicals to the wastewater) were susceptible to corrosion by the hydroflouric acid.

WMATA admits that from about October 2, 2003 to October 7, 2003 it violated a federal pretreatment requirement under the Clean Water Act by negligently discharging a corrosive material with a pH lower than 5.0, to the pipes and sewers of the WSSC sanitary sewer system. The plea agreement states that on October 1, 2003, the neutralization in the Branch Avenue wastewater recycling system failed, and excess wastewater from the hand-wash operations, with a pH below 5.0, was discharged through an over-flow pipe into the sewer. WSSC inspected the Branch Avenue Rail Yard that same day and discovered wastewater overflowing from the treatment system and entering the WSSC sanitary sewer leading to the Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant in Accokeek, Maryland. WSSC took a sample of the wastewater, which had an acidic pH of 3.3 units. Based on this finding, WSSC installed a pH logger at a sewer location immediately outside and downstream from the Branch Avenue Rail Yard. On October 2, 2003, WSSC reviewed the pH data from the logger which showed discharges with an acidic pH of 2.8. WSSC immediately issued a Notice of Violation for discharges with a pH lower than 5.0 and contacted WMATA to cease the discharges from the rail car wash operation. WSSC returned the pH logger to its location to continue monitoring the wastewater discharges. Although WMATA closed the car wash shed until further notice on October 2, 2003, the shed was inadvertently re-opened and cars run through on their way to and from the storage lot. This traffic re-started the car wash neutralization system, which resulted in further discharges to the WSSC system with pH readings lower than 5.0 on October 3-7, 2003.

“For many years, WMATA paid more attention to the outside appearance of its railcars than the environment, and neglected to ensure that the corrosive wastewater resulting from cleaning the railcars was properly treated before discharging it to Washington Surburban Sanitary Commission sewer system,” said David M. Dillon, Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Criminal investigation Division, Philadelphia Area Office.
“This case reflects EPA's strong commitment in protecting our environment even against negligent conduct,” added Dillon.

“The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is pleased that the matter in question has been resolved,” said Jim Neustadt, WSSC’s Director of Communications and Community Relations. “This decision enhances our ability to protect the public health needs of our customers. It sends the message that illegal discharges into our sewer system will be taken seriously. We thank the EPA for its enforcement efforts and for its commitment to bring this case to a satisfactory conclusion.”

United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein thanked the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency - Criminal Investigation Division for their investigative work. Mr. Rosenstein commended Assistant United States Attorney David I. Salem, who is prosecuting the case.



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