Metro fined $200,000 for 2003 release of acid into sewer

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

A federal judge ordered Metro to pay a $200,000 fine Wednesday for violating the Clean Water Act when it released hazardous chemicals into the sewer system over six days in 2003.

In an unusual criminal case against the quasi-public agency, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus also ordered quarterly environmental inspections of the Branch Avenue rail yard during an 18-month probationary period. And Titus said Metro must inform all employees of the violation and provide him with evidence of steps taken to inform and educate workers about environmental policy.

"The offense in this case is a serious one, although it is a misdemeanor," Titus said. "There was a failure of communication or education about the [environmental] policy in 2003."

According to court records, 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, which is extremely corrosive, authorities said. In one case, the acidic wastewater caused a sewer pipe to collapse.

Carol B. O'Keeffe, Metro's general counsel, entered a guilty plea on behalf of the agency in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

"Metro has a long, very proud history of contributing to the overall environmental health of this region," O'Keeffe told the judge. "Where we fell short of it, it is because of miscommunication and misunderstanding, not because of intent."

After the problem was discovered in 2003, Metro stopped using hydrofluoric acid to wash cars, agency officials said.

Industrial water users, including Metro, often are required to treat wastewater before it enters the sewer system.

Metro cars were hand-washed at New Carrollton from the mid-1980s until May 2003, according to court records. On May 12, 2003, wastewater backed up in the shed where cars were washed. A probe revealed that water had not been properly treated and had caused the sewer pipe damage.

In June 2003, Metro moved the hand-washing operation to the Branch Avenue facility, which had the most modern water recycling system of any agency rail yard. On Oct. 1, 2003, the recycling system failed because of damage caused by the hydrofluoric acid.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission detected the acidic water and ordered Metro to halt the washing operation. Metro closed the car wash shed, but rail operators unaware of the problem reopened it to move cars headed to or from the storage lot. Metro admitted that the polluted water entered the sewer system from Oct. 2 through 7, 2003.

W. Warren Hamel, an attorney for Metro, said that the massive transportation system has a "very robust environmental management plan" and that managers conduct weekly and monthly checks of facilities to ensure compliance. He said Metro has not had any "significant violations" since the water problem.

Cars now are machine-washed at several stations. They still are hand-washed at Branch Avenue, but not with the acid.

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