Criminal investigation into Lafarge Duwamish river pollution ends with fine

An eight-year investigation into Lafarge North America’s cement plant in Seattle’s Industrial District, that saw divers sneak water monitoring equipment into the plant’s drain has ended with a fine and no criminal prosecution.

Workers at the investigation’s target – a cement plant on the Duwamish River – were suspected of illegally pouring waste into the river, which runs through Seattle’s Industrial District separating West Seattle from the rest of the city.

Criminal investigators with the Environmental Protection Agency took the unusual step of hiding water quality sampling equipment inside a 32-inch drainpipe at the Lafarge North America plant.

Agents obtained a warrant similar to those required to wiretap suspects and discovered “spikes” in pollution emanating for the plant that was not supposed to be dumping anything at all.

Ultimately, Lafarge North America managers and the EPA resolved the claims through a $300,000 fine for dumping water soiled at the plant into the Duwamish, violating federal law and further polluting the already tainted river.

That settlement, brought about following out-of-court negotiations between EPA and the cement maker, is currently being reviewed by a federal judge in Seattle.

The cement kiln and some operations at Lafarge’s West Marginal Way facility have been curtailed since the investigation began, though cement processing continues at the site.

Jonathan Hall, operations manager at the facility, said water handling at the facility has been improved since the violations were discovered.  “Managing stormwater is an evolution,” Hall said.

“One of the things we strive for is being a facility that the regulators are impressed with” while staying financially viable, he continued. “We want to continue to develop our green footprint.”

Investigators’ interest in the Lafarge plant dates to 2006, when a tipster reported workers there were secretly dumping “chemical waste” into the Duwamish. EPA divers working as part of a criminal investigation inserted monitoring equipment into an outfall pipe at the facility three years later in an effort to corroborate that claim.

It’s unclear whether those allegations proved out. No criminal prosecutions followed the investigation, and the pending settlement between EPA and Lafarge likely means none are planned.

The $300,000 fine “was determined to be an appropriate penalty based on the EPA’s long-standing settlement policy,” EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre said Friday. MacIntyre declined to comment on the criminal investigation or elaborate on its outcome.

EPA investigators concluded that Lafarge had been violating the Clean Water Act, which regulates polluting discharges into American waters. High among the pollution sources regulated by the Clean Water Act is runoff from industrial facilities. Such discharges flowed through the Lafarge plant into the Duwamish without treatment, contrary to permits issued to the plant.

The 22-acre waterfront plant, located at 5400 W. Marginal Way S.W., had manufactured Portland cement since 1967. Until recently, workers made cement clinker by melting limestone, sand, iron and clay in a large kiln at the plant, which was built to produce 490,000 tons of cement annually. Lafarge bought the plant in 1998 and has run it since.

Now employing about 30 workers, the plant’s workforce was halved four years ago when the kiln was shutdown. Hall said the down economy, new air pollution regulations and other factors prompted the kiln closure.


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