Metro charged with dumping hazardous material after washing trains

By Maria Glod and Meg Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Federal authorities have criminally charged Metro with releasing hazardous chemicals into the sewer system over a six-day period in 2003, according to documents unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

The Maryland U.S. attorney alleges that Metro violated the federal Clean Water Act. According to court records, a plea agreement has been reached, and a hearing is scheduled for Nov. 25.

The criminal claim against the quasi-public agency is extremely unusual, and a search of federal and state court records revealed no other such cases. It is not clear why prosecutors are pursuing the case six years after the alleged violation.

According to court documents, polluted water left over after Metro cars were washed at the New Carrollton and Branch Avenue rail yards was released into sewer pipes without being properly treated. A contractor hired in the mid-1980s to clean the cars used chemicals including hydrofluoric acid, "an extremely corrosive and hazardous chemical know for its ability to dissolve metal oxides," prosecutors wrote.

John C. White, spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, said he could not comment on the case because it is a pending legal matter. But White said hazardous chemicals that enter the sewer would not turn up in drinking water.

"As a rule, the sewer system and the water system are totally separate," White said. "If something went into the sewer system, it would not impact the drinking system."

Lisa Farbstein, a Metro spokeswoman, said the agency stopped using the hydrofluoric acid to wash cars when the problem was discovered in 2003. She said that procedure has not been used since. "The cleaning came to a complete halt," she said. "The discharge stopped."

The case was filed Oct. 28 but was kept sealed until noon yesterday.

Federal prosecutors had asked that the case remain sealed, writing that "avoiding unnecessary publicity prior to the date of the plea hearing is in the interest of the parties and the public." U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus denied the request. "This court's business is public business, and that is especially so when the defendant before it is a public agency."

Industrial water users, including Metro, are often required to pretreat wastewater before it goes into the sewer system, the documents said. The filtering is aimed at removing, among other things, corrosive substances that could damage sewer pipes.

Metro cars were hand-washed at New Carrollton from the mid-1980s until May 2003, according to the records. On May 12, 2003, wastewater backed up in the shed where cars were washed after an underground sewer pipe corroded. An investigation showed that the wastewater that flowed into the sewer pipe had not first been "captured and treated by the neutralization and recycling system" at the yard.

In June 2003, the records state, Metro moved the wash operation to the Branch Avenue facility, where the same chemicals were used. About Oct. 1, the recycling system failed.

The sanitary commission detected wastewater that was too acidic the next day and instructed Metro to "cease the discharges" from the wash, court records state. On Oct. 9, the commission issued a "notice of violation."

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