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Seattle – The former plant manager of a barrel cleaning and reconditioning company, Seattle Barrel and Cooperage Company, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 30 days in prison and four months of home detention for conspiracy and making a false statement to the Environmental Protection Agency, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. John Sanft, 58, pleaded guilty in January 2022. He was the company’s plant manager during a conspiracy to illegally dump caustic waste into the King County sewer system, which ultimately empties into Puget Sound. The company used a hidden drain, and, over ten years, lied to regulators to carry out their illegal dumping.
At today’s sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard A Jones told Sanft, “You were aware of the hidden drain at Seattle Barrel. You were willfully making false statements to regulators…. You chose to lie and lie and continue to lie.”
Last month, company owner Louie Sanft was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. The company was sentenced to be on five years of probation.
According to records in the case and testimony at trial, Seattle Barrel’s business involves collecting used industrial and commercial drums and reconditioning and reselling them. Part of the reconditioning process involved washing the barrels in a highly corrosive chemical solution. The caustic solution has a very high pH level. Since at least 2009, Seattle Barrel has operated under a discharge permit that prohibits it from discharging wastewater over a certain level of corrosivity (a pH exceeding 12) to the sewer system. Wastewater above pH 12 will corrode the sewer system and treatment plant, and potentially cause pass-through pollution to Elliott Bay and Puget Sound.
In 2013, King County conducted covert monitoring of Seattle Barrel, and discovered the company was illegally dumping effluent with a pH above 12 in violation of its permit. King County fined the company, but the pollution did not stop. Beginning in 2016, Louie Sanft represented to King County in written monthly certifications that the company had become a “zero discharge” facility and was not discharging any industrial wastewater to the sewer.
In fact, in 2018 and 2019, additional covert monitoring by the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division revealed that Seattle Barrel was continuing to routinely dump wastewater with a pH above 12 into the sewer system despite telling local regulators that no industrial wastewater was being discharged. Agents then installed real-time monitoring equipment that allowed them to determine when the dumping was taking place.
Early on the morning of March 8, 2019, the covert monitors indicated Seattle Barrel was dumping high-pH material into the sewer. Agents immediately executed a search warrant and entered the building. Inside, they discovered a portable pump on the floor near the tank of caustic solution. They then discovered that the pump was being used to pump solution to a nearby hidden drain that had never been disclosed to King County. The drain led directly to the sewer system.
Seattle Public Utilities says the sewer lines downstream from Seattle Barrel are prematurely damaged and will need early repair. These discharges put utility workers at risk, as such caustic chemicals can cause blindness, skin necrosis, bone damage, and even death.
Louie Sanft, the owner and operator of Seattle Barrel, was convicted after a three-week trial of conspiracy, 29 violations of the Clean Water Act for discharging pollutants to the sewer, four counts of submission of False Clean Water Act Certifications and making a false statement to special agents of the EPA. In sentencing John Sanft, Judge Jones noted that unlike Louie Sanft, John Sanft did not lie to the jury from the witness stand.
According to Seattle Barrel, the company stopped using caustic solution after EPA executed the search warrant in 2019.
This case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, with assistance from the King County Industrial Waste Program and the Seattle Public Utilities, Drainage and Wastewater Source Control Division.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Thomas Woods, and Special Assistant United States Attorneys Karla Perrin and Gwendolyn Russell, Regional Criminal Enforcement Counsel with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Press contact for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is Communications Director Emily Langlie at (206) 553-4110 or Emily.Langlie@usdoj.gov.