By: Jayne O'Donnell , USA TODAY
Wal-Mart pleads guilty and settles charges that it dumped hazardous waste in sewage systems, among other violations.
Wal-Mart Stores settled a decade-long investigation into its hazardous waste practices Tuesday when it pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay $81 million, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
In cases filed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Wal-Mart pleaded guilty to six counts of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail stores across the United States. The company also pleaded guilty in Kansas City, Mo., to violating federal law governing the proper handling of pesticides that had been returned by customers at stores across the country.
When combined with previous actions brought by California and Missouri, Wal-Mart will pay a total of more than $110 million to resolve cases alleging violations of federal and state environmental laws.
'This case is as big as Wal-Mart is," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Johns, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section in Los Angeles. "This conduct is alleged to have taken place at every single Walmart in the country."
Wal-Mart did not have a program in place and failed to train its employees on proper hazardous waste management and disposal practices at the store level, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
The practices started at an unknown date and continued until January 2006. That meant hazardous wastes were either discarded improperly at the store level — including being put into municipal trash bins or, if a liquid, poured into the local sewer system — or they were improperly transported without proper safety documentation to one of six product-return centers located throughout the United States.
"By improperly handling hazardous waste, pesticides and other materials in violation of federal laws, Wal-Mart put the public and the environment at risk and gained an unfair economic advantage over other companies," said Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Wal-Mart admitted trucking more than 2 million pounds of regulated pesticides and other products from its return centers to Greenleaf, a recycling facility in Neosho, Mo., between July 2006 and February 2008. Prosecutors say the products were processed for reuse and resale, but lax oversight caused regulated pesticides to be mixed together and offered for sale in violation of FIFRA.
In 2010, the company agreed to pay $27.6 million to settle similar allegations made by California authorities that led to the overhaul of its hazardous waste compliance program nationwide. The state investigation began eight years ago when a San Diego County health department employee saw a worker pouring bleach down a drain.
In another instance, officials said a Solano County boy was found playing in a mound of fertilizer near a Walmart garden section. The yellow-tinted powder contained ammonium sulfate, a chemical compound that causes irritation to people's skin, eyes and respiratory tract.
"We have fixed the problem," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said. "We are obviously happy that this is the final resolution."
Court documents show the illegal dumping occurred in 16 California counties between 2003 and 2005. Federal prosecutors said the company didn't train its employees on how to handle and dispose of hazardous materials at its stores.
In addition to sewage systems, the waste also was improperly taken to one of several product-return centers throughout the United Sates without proper safety documentation.
Buchanan said employees are better trained on how to clean up, transport and dispose of dangerous products such as fertilizer that are spilled in the store or have damaged packaging.
For instance, workers are armed with scanners that tell them whether a damaged package is considered to contain a hazardous material and are trained on how to handle it, she said. Wal-Mart also says it has created nearly 50 dedicated environment compliance staff, with elevated management authority;
Johns says Wal-Mart should have known better — sooner.
"We prosecute mom-and-pop stores for this type of conduct," he says. "If there's anyone who has the resources to comply with the law, it's Wal-Mart."