WMATA Pleads Guilty to Negligently Discharging Corrosive Wastewater

Court Orders $200,000 Fine, 18 Months Probation and Quarterly

Inspections

       Greenbelt, Maryland – The Washington Metropolitan

Area Transit Authority (WMATA), pleaded guilty today to the negligent discharge

of wastewater containing hydrofluoric acid to the pipes and  sewers of the

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (“WSSC”), in violation of WSSC’s

pretreatment standard for pH, and in violation of the Clean Water Act,

announced United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J.

Rosenstein. 

        After taking the plea, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus ordered

WMATA to pay a fine of $200,000, imposed 18 months of probation and further

ordered WMATA to permit quarterly EPA/WSSC inspections of the Branch Avenue

Rail Yard and publicize this criminal violation internally to its employees.

        According to the plea agreement, WMATA owned and operated several

rail yard facilities throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area, including the

New Carrollton Rail Yard, which had equipment to wash the aluminum exterior

surface of the railroad cars or “rail cars” used in WMATA’s “Metro Rail” subway

system.  The wastewater from this automated wash operation underwent

neutralization and was reused prior to being discharged to the sanitary sewer.

        According to the statement of facts, in 1985, WMATA contracted

with a privately-owned business to clean or “restore” the exterior surface of

the rail cars because the automated washing of rail cars did not remove the

heavy soil and oxides that accumulated on the rail cars’ aluminum exterior

surface during the course of their use.  The contractor used a process

that involved hand washing the exterior surface using various chemicals,

including hydrofluoric acid.  Hydrofluoric acid is an extremely corrosive

and hazardous chemical, known for its ability to dissolve metal oxides,

including aluminum oxides.   The chemicals used by the contractor had

to be approved by WMATA to insure that the chemicals and rinses could be safely

disposed without additional treatment through the existing waste water system

at the New Carrollton Yard carwash.   From 1985 through February,

2003, hydrofluoric acid was approved by WMATA to be used by the contractor for

hand-washing WMATA rail cars. 

        On May 12, 2003,

a portion of the underground sewer pipe closest to the

hand wash operation failed due to severe corrosion, and wastewater began to

back up in the rail car wash shed.  After further inspection, WMATA

concluded that wastewater from the hand wash operation had not been captured

and treated by the neutralization and recycling system in place at the facility

and ceased hand-wash operations at New Carrollton on May 13, 2003 and

transferred the operations to WMATA’s Branch Avenue Rail Yard on June 3, 2003. 

The Branch Avenue

facility had the  newest and most complete recycling and neutralization

system within the WMATA system, and  all of the drains within the wash

facility shed were properly connected to the wastewater recycling and

neutralization system.  However, the pH probes in the wastewater

neutralization and recycling system (used to automatically calibrate the flow

of neutralization chemicals to the wastewater) were susceptible to corrosion by

the hydroflouric acid. 

        WMATA admits that from about October 2, 2003 to October 7, 2003 it

violated a federal pretreatment requirement under the Clean Water Act by

negligently discharging a corrosive material with a pH lower than 5.0, to the

pipes and sewers of the WSSC sanitary sewer system. The plea agreement states

that on October 1, 2003, the neutralization in the Branch Avenue wastewater recycling system

failed, and excess wastewater from the hand-wash operations, with a pH below

5.0, was discharged through an over-flow pipe into the sewer.  WSSC

inspected the Branch Avenue Rail Yard that same day and discovered wastewater

overflowing from the treatment system and entering the WSSC sanitary sewer

leading to the Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant in Accokeek, Maryland. 

WSSC took a sample of the wastewater, which had an acidic pH of 3.3

units.  Based on this finding, WSSC installed a pH logger at a sewer

location immediately outside and downstream from the Branch Avenue Rail

Yard.  On October 2, 2003, WSSC reviewed the pH data from the logger which

showed discharges with an acidic pH of 2.8.  WSSC immediately issued a

Notice of Violation for discharges with a pH lower than 5.0 and contacted WMATA

to cease the discharges from the rail car wash operation.  WSSC returned

the pH logger to its location to continue monitoring the wastewater discharges.

Although WMATA closed the car wash shed until further notice on October 2,

2003, the shed was inadvertently re-opened and cars run through on their way to

and from the storage lot.  This traffic re-started the car wash

neutralization system, which resulted in further discharges to the WSSC system

with pH  readings lower than 5.0 on October 3-7, 2003.

        “For many years, WMATA paid more attention to  the outside

appearance of its railcars than the environment, and  neglected to ensure

that the corrosive wastewater resulting from  cleaning the railcars was

properly treated before discharging it to Washington Surburban Sanitary

Commission sewer system,” said David M. Dillon, Special Agent-in-Charge,

 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Criminal investigation Division,

Philadelphia Area Office.  “This case reflects EPA’s strong commitment in

protecting our environment even against negligent conduct,” added Dillon.

        “The Washington

Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is pleased that the matter in question has

been resolved,” said Jim Neustadt, WSSC’s Director of Communications and

Community Relations. “This decision enhances our ability to protect the public

health needs of our customers.  It sends the message that illegal

discharges into our sewer system will be taken seriously. We thank the EPA

for its enforcement efforts and for its commitment to bring this case to a

satisfactory conclusion.”

        United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein thanked the Washington

Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency – Criminal

Investigation Division for their investigative work.  Mr. Rosenstein

commended Assistant United States Attorney David I. Salem, who is prosecuting

the case.

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