Plant Manager of Seattle barrel reconditioning company pleads guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators
Ten-year scheme to conceal illegal dumping of caustic solution into sewer system
Seattle (STL.News) The plant manager of Seattle Barrel and Cooperage Company, a barrel cleaning and reconditioning operation, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Seattle to conspiracy and making a false statement to the Environmental Protection Agency, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. John Sanft, 51, formerly of Issaquah, Washington, 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. Last month, the company and its owner, Louie Sanft, were found guilty by a jury of participating in the dumping scheme. John Sanft will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones on April 22, 2022.
Seattle Barrel’s business involves collecting used industrial and commercial drums and reconditioning and reselling them. Between 2009 and March of 2019, part of the reconditioning process involved washing the barrels in a highly-corrosive chemical solution. The caustic solution had a very high pH level. Since at least 2009, Seattle Barrel 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.
However, 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 the caustic solution to a nearby hidden drain that had never been disclosed to King County. The drain led directly to the sewer system. According to the company, since mid-2019, following the criminal conduct in this case, it no longer uses the caustic solution for barrel cleaning.
As noted in the plea agreement, John Sanft knew of the existence of the hidden drain, and further knew that Seattle Barrel was regularly discharging the contents of the caustic tank through the hidden drain. John Sanft did not personally engage in the discharges or tell the employee to cause the discharges. However, Sanft admits he was part of the conspiracy to hide the conduct from the King County inspectors and the EPA. John Sanft admitted to lying to federal agents about the dumping during a March 8, 2019 interview. John Sant faces up to five years in prison for each of the two charges to which he pled guilty.
“The defendant’s intentional disregard for the environment included an attempt to deceive law enforcement and conceal other crimes” said Scot Adair, Special Agent in Charge of the EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Washington. “EPA and the Department of Justice continue to hold accountable companies and individuals that place communities and the environment at risk.”
In December 2021, John Sanft’s cousin, Louie Sanft, the owner and operator of Seattle Barrel, was convicted following 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. 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.
Under the terms of the plea agreement with John Sanft, prosecutors will recommend he be sentenced to no more than a year and a day in prison. However, the ultimate sentence is up to U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones. Judge Jones will determine the sentence for both John and Louie Sanft and the company, 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.