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Seattle – A barrel cleaning and reconditioning operation, Seattle Barrel and Cooperage Company, and its owner, Louie Sanft, 55, were convicted late yesterday of conspiracy, making false statements, and 33 Clean Water Act violations following a three-week jury trial, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Investigators with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documented 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. Sentencing for Sanft and the company is scheduled in front of U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones on March 25, 2022.
“While publicly claiming to follow environmental best practices, in private the company was illegally sending thousands of gallons of caustic wastewater into the sewer system,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. “The highly corrosive wastewater can damage equipment that cleans wastewater, and further pollutes our fragile Puget Sound. I commend the investigators with EPA and King County, who uncovered this conspiracy and our team who successfully held Mr. Sanft and the company accountable.”
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 had a very high pH level. According to the indictment, since at least 2009, Seattle Barrel has operated under a discharge permit that prohibits it from dumping effluent with a pH exceeding 12 to the sewer system. Effluent 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 $55,250, but later agreed to reduce the fine when Seattle Barrel installed a pretreatment system for its wastewater. 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 inspectors 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 and obtained a search warrant.
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 the 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. The company claims that since mid-2019, following the criminal conduct in this case, it no longer uses the caustic solution.
Louie Sanft, the owner and operator of Seattle Barrel, was convicted 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. Louie Sanft faces up to 5 years in prison on the conspiracy and false statement counts, and up to three years in prison for each violation of the Clean Water Act. His cousin, John Sanft, 53, of Issaquah, WA, the plant manager, is scheduled for a separate trial on the charges in March 2022.
U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones will determine the sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID) with significant assistance from King County Industrial Waste.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Jim Oesterle, 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.