The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will be fined $81.6 million after the retailing giant plead guilty to multiple counts in three different courts across the nation to violating the Clean Water Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The charges were filed by the Justice Department and the penalty fee includes fines in a related civil case brought by EPA.
Combined with previous penalties levied against the corporation by California and Missouri, total fines will exceed $110 million for violating state and federal environmental regulations.
The timing and size of the penalties touches upon concerns many have expressed about Wal-Mart buying influence with its charitable arm, the Wal-Mart Foundation. President Obama’s budget director nominee, Sylvia Burwell, currently runs the foundation. Whether or not the foundation’s influence affected the penalties imposed remains to be debated.
The Clean Water Act violations were heard in courts in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Wal-Mart admitted to six counts of violating the act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail stores across the United States.
The FIFRA violations involved failing to properly handle pesticides that had been returned by customers at its stores across the country. That case was heard in Fenton, MO.
Shoppers at Bakersfield’s Wal-Mart stores may not have been aware of the violations, but many, if not all, of the substances involved are commonly found on local store shelves. (See accompanying slide show.)
Beginning at an unknown date until January 2006, Wal-Mart had no program in place to train employees on proper hazardous waste management and disposal at the store level. Consequently, hazardous wastes were disposed illegally in a variety of manners, including placement into municipal trash bins, pouring liquids into local sewer systems, and/or transporting wastes without proper documentation.
“Federal laws that address the proper handling, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes exist to safeguard our environment and protect the public from harm,” said André Birotte Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. “Retailers like Wal-Mart that generate hazardous waste have a duty to legally and safely dispose of that hazardous waste, and dumping it down the sink was neither legal nor safe. The case against Wal-Mart is designed to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws now and in the future.”
“As one of the largest retailers in the United States, Wal-Mart is responsible not only for the stock on its shelves, but also for the significant amount of hazardous materials that result from damaged products returned by customers,” said Melinda Haag, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. “The crimes in these cases stem from Wal-Mart’s failure to comply with the regulations designed to ensure the proper handling, storage, and disposal of those hazardous materials and waste. With its guilty plea today, Wal-Mart is in a position to be an industry leader by ensuring that not only Wal-Mart, but all retail stores properly handle their waste.”
Wal-Mart responded with its own announcement and referred to the charges as incidents that happened years ago, involved the transportation and disposal of common consumer products, and resulted in no alleged environmental impacts.
“Walmart has a comprehensive and industry-leading hazardous waste program,” said Phyllis Harris, senior vice president and chief compliance officer, Walmart US. “The program was built around training, policies and procedures on how to safely handle consumer products that become hazardous waste, and we continue to run the same program in every store and club that was deployed years ago,” Harris continued. “We are pleased that this resolves all of these issues raised by the government.”