Federal prosecutors have filed charges against Metro for allegedly dumping hazardous waste into sewage systems at the Branch Avenue and New Carrollton rail yards — facilities where train cars are cleaned — in 2003.
Metro officials confirmed that wastewater was discharged at both facilities into sewer systems, but the agency stopped the process in 2003, according to documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland.
“It was discharged in a way that may not have been entirely clean at the time,” Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said in an interview Friday. “Once we were told, we stopped it.”
The U.S. attorney’s office filed charges Oct. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against the quasi-governmental transit agency, citing a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Taubenkibel said Metro officials have reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, but could not release the details of the settlement before a public hearing in court, which is scheduled for Nov. 25.
According to the charging document, Metro officials contracted in 1985 with a private, unnamed business in Rockville to clean the outside of rail cars by hand.
The cleaning process involved various chemicals, including hydrofluoric acid, which, according to the document, is “an extremely corrosive and hazardous chemical.”
Under the guidelines of the Clean Water Act, workers at both rail yards were required to pre-treat the wastewater before sending it into the sewer system. This treatment would prevent some of the chemicals, including hydrofluoric acid, from corroding the metal pipes that lead to the water treatment facilities or damaging the treatment systems, according to the charging document.
Federal prosecutors allege that around May 13, 2003, Metro officials learned that the wastewater at the New Carrollton rail yard was not being pre-treated and, as a result, was corroding sewage pipes.
It is unclear how long the wastewater had gone untreated before it was discovered, Taubenkibel said.
Shortly after learning about the problem, according to the charging document, Metro officials stopped the hand-washing at the New Carrollton rail yard and relocated the operation to the Branch Avenue rail yard sometime around June 3, 2003.
Around Oct. 1 of the same year, federal prosecutors claim, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission discovered wastewater that had not been pre-treated was flowing from the Branch Avenue rail yard into the main sewage line.
The next day, according to the charging document, Metro officials discontinued the hand-washing at that facility.
Any waste dumped into the sewer system would not affect regional water sources, since sewage moves directly to treatment facilities through separate pipes, WSSC spokesman John White said.
However, he declined to comment on the charges filed against Metro or about any impact on sewage pipes or treatment in 2003.
Metro operates nine rail yards, but the hand-washing only took place at the New Carrollton and Branch Avenue facilities, according to Taubenkibel.
He added that Metro has since found other ways to clean rail cars and get rid of the wastewater, but was unable to provide the specifics by publication time.