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Secret sampling at sewer pipes leading from an Amherst chemical company led to a search warrant and eventually to charges that could bring fines of up to $500,000, U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell announced Thursday.

International Chemical Corp., also operating as Innovative Chemical Corp. of 55 Woodridge Drive, has entered guilty pleas to two felony violations of the Clean Water Act for discharging waste water deemed too corrosive for the town's wastewater treatment facility.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Gromis said the "covert" sampling started after Amherst alerted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to possible improper discharges by the company in 1996. The results led to a search warrant that was executed last October.

The violations involve discharge of water with a pH lower than 4.0. The Clean Water Act generally prohibits discharge to treatment plants of water with a reading of less than 5.0 on the acidity measurement scale, not because it contains contaminants but because it is corrosive.

As part of a plea agreement, the company will pay for installation of monitoring equipment at its facility and will repay Amherst for the costs of its investigation.

Other agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the State Attorney General's Office, also took part in the probe. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 10 before District Judge William M. Skretny. The maximum penalty on each charge is a $500,000 fine and five years' probation.

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