Financial Crime: Hidden drains and secret pumps: How a Seattle company evaded the EPA to dump toxic water into Puget Sound for years

United States

In the end, they had him over a legal barrel.

The owner of a Seattle barrel cleaning company has been convicted of using hidden drains and pumps to dump toxic wastewater into the sewer for years after he had paid a huge fine and had agreed to cease illegally disposing of such waste.

Prosecutors say that for a decade, Louis Sanft, 55, of the Seattle Barrel and Cooperage Co., had secretly dumped highly corrosive wastewater from cleaning industrial fluid out of barrels into the King County sewer system, which would ultimately end up in the ecologically fragile Puget Sound.

Seattle Barrel collected used industrial and commercial drums and reconditioned and resold them after washing them with a chemical solution. That solution can damage sewer pipes if improperly dumped, prosecutors said. 

In 2013, Sanft had been sanctioned and fined $ 55,250 for dumping such wastewater, but later had the fine lowered when he told officials he had installed a pretreatment system. Since 2016, Sanft had provided written certification to environmental officials that he operated a “zero discharge” plant.

But prosecutors say that instead of properly handling the caustic waste his facility generated, Sanft secretly installed a hidden drain and pump system that continued to pour the dirty water into the sewer.

“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 Nick Brown, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington.

A message left with Sanft’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned. 

Investigators with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually grew suspicious of Sanft’s operation and, in 2018, began conducting covert monitoring of water exiting the plant.

In 2019, investigators executed a search warrant on the plant after detecting illegal discharge, and found a portable pump connected to a hidden drain that flowed directly into the sewer system.

Sanft was convicted following a three-week trial of conspiracy, 33 Clean Water Act violations and lying to the EPA. He faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy and false statement counts, and up to 99 years for the Clean Water Act violations. He is scheduled to be sentenced on March 25.

Sanft’s cousin, John Sanft, 53, of Issaquah, Washington, who worked as the plant’s manager, is scheduled for a separate trial on similar charges in March.