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Press Release

Seattle Barrel cleaning company and its owner sentenced for ten-year water pollution scheme

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Washington
Repeatedly lied to regulators and investigators to hide dumping dangerous and damaging chemicals into sewer system

Seattle – A barrel cleaning and reconditioning operation, Seattle Barrel and Cooperage Company, and its owner, Louie Sanft, 55, were sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle for conspiracy, making false statements, and 33 Clean Water Act violations, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. 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.

U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones, who presided over the three-week trial, said, “These discharges were not done by accident or mistake… they were done with disregard for the consequences… An enormous amount of caustic waste – an estimated 26,000 gallons of caustic water -- into our system with no idea of what harm it could have done. You had no justifiable reason to engage in this deceitful and dangerous activity.”

“These defendants sent dangerous caustic chemicals into our sewer system once a week for years,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gorman. “This risked environmental harm to Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River, damaged critical sewer infrastructure, and could have seriously injured utility workers. At many points Mr. Sanft and his company could have reformed their ways – the refusal to do so results in these sentences today.”

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.

Asking the court to impose a five-year prison sentence, Assistant United States Attorney Seth Wilkinson wrote, “Louis Sanft affirmatively chose to pollute and engaged in a campaign of deceit to cover it up, despite regulators efforts to help him comply… Louis Sanft simply stonewalled, or lied and continued his illegal practices… Sanft… lied to federal agents…tried to mislead the U.S. Attorney’s Office and EPA …and finally, Louis Sanft lied to the jury at trial.”

As part of the sentence for the company, Judge Jones is requiring the company to certify every quarter that it has complied with all federal, state, and local requirements including compliance with its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

"For nearly a decade, the defendants dumped caustic industrial waste into the Seattle sewer system and then conspired to conceal their illegal activities by submitting false monthly reports and lying to investigators," said Acting Special Agent in Charge Benjamin Carr of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division for Washington. “Today’s sentencing demonstrates the seriousness of these crimes and sends a clear message that businesses will be held criminally responsible if they fail to manage industrial wastes in accordance with laws designed to protect the health of our communities, national infrastructure, and the environment.”

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

Updated September 8, 2023

Environmental Justice