Here’s how federal investigators say they found the “hidden drain” and unraveled an alleged pollution conspiracy by a century-old Seattle barrel company.

A sensitive sewer flow meter tipped them off to something strange, according to a federal search-warrant affidavit.

So the agents sent a camera-mounted robot into the sewer to investigate. They found a mysterious white stain.

Then, they installed a pair of probes to record real-time changes in water chemistry. One day in March, just after dawn, when the probes indicated a spike in the waste water’s pH, federal agents served a search warrant at Seattle Barrel and Cooperage Company, according to a federal indictment handed down Tuesday.

The 36-count grand jury indictment says the company, its owner and its plant manager used the hidden drain to dump a corrosive solution of chemicals into public sewers, then lied to regulators about the practice and conspired to cover up their activities.

Family-owned Seattle Barrel collects, reconditions and sells 55-gallon industrial drums. It cleans the drums for reuse in a large tank using “highly corrosive chemical solution,” according to the indictment.

Advertising

The indictment claims that instead of disposing of the tank solution according to law, the company routinely pumped this mixture into the sewer.

A lawyer representing the company, Harold Malkin, said “unauthorized actions” of a former employee led to the indictment and that the company’s leaders “directly prohibited” that employee’s conduct.

Environmental Protection Agency criminal investigators discovered the alleged scheme in 2018 after installing the sewer monitors.

During the search, agents found a portable pump coated with high-pH liquid and near a tank for the caustic solution, according to the indictment. An employee allegedly admitted to pumping the mixture into a drain the company had concealed from regulators.

That employee was not named or charged under the indictment.

Investigators say they documented at least 29 separate times in 2018 and 2019 that the company had discharged its waste directly into the King County sewer system.

It also alleges that Louie Sanft, the company’s owner, and his cousin, John Sanft, the plant manager, directed the illegal discharges from no later than August 2009 to fall 2019, tried to conceal the practice from King County Industrial Waste regulators, falsely represented monitoring reports and lied to investigators.

Advertising

John Sanft helped pump out discharge and also helped in “looking out” for regulators, the indictment says.

Angelo Calfo, an attorney representing Louie Sanft, said the Justice Department and EPA made a “serious error” in charging his client and also blamed the former employee.

“Louie had no motive to do this. Company practice and policy was to have the tank water boiled down and evaporated. Any sludge from the tank would be transported for proper disposal,” Calfo said. “This case is about a former employee who cut corners for his own gain.”

John Sanft’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Seattle Barrel attracted regulators’ attention in 2012, when a King County Industrial Waste employee witnessed John Sanft dump an “oily material” into a sewer.

The county agency began to investigate using “covert monitoring” and discovered violations of the company’s wastewater discharge permit in 2013, according to the indictment.

Advertising

The agency fined the company $55,250 and ordered it to install a wastewater pretreatment center. The fine was later reduced. The company installed the pretreatment center, and would later tell county regulators the facility was a “zero discharge” facility, the indictment says.

The system was not designed and never used to process the solution the federal agents say went directly into the sewer system, according to the indictment.

Separately, the company paid $30,000 after the Washington Department of Ecology fined the company for failing to identify caustic wastewater as a hazardous waste, missing labels on hazardous waste containers and lacking measures to prevent the escape of hazardous liquids.

The company also agreed to spend $15,000 on hazardous-waste management training and an independent audit of its hazardous-waste compliance practices, according to a 2015 news release from the state agency.

The Sanfts face charges including conspiracy, which is punishable by up to five years in prison; violation of the Clean Water Act, which is punishable by up to three years in prison per count; and making a false statement, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.