America’s largest retailer and employer has been fined over $100 million for violating environmental regulations by disposing of fertilizer, pesticide and bleach in sewage systems across the country, among other violations.
Walmart pleaded guilty to six counts of violating the Clean Water Act by disposing of hazardous chemicals in garbage receptacles and sewage systems at over 4,000 retail outlets across the United States in court cases filed by the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The US Justice Department said Walmart was also found guilty of violating federal law by mixing together pesticides at a Missouri recycling facility and then reselling them in a process that violated the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
The state of California opened an investigation into the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company in 2005 when a San Diego County Health Department inspector witnessed a Walmart employee discarding bleach down a sewer drain.
In another instance, investigators said a boy was found playing in a mound of fertilizer near a Walmart garden section. The product contained ammonium sulfate, a chemical compound that causes irritation to people’s skin, eyes and respiratory tract, USA Today reported.
“As one of the largest retailers in the United States, Walmart 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, US Attorney for the Northern District of California. “The crimes in these cases stem from Walmart’s failure to comply with the regulations designed to ensure the proper handling, storage, and disposal of those hazardous materials and waste.”
Court records show the illegal dumping happened in 16 California counties between 2003 and 2005. Federal prosecutors said Walmart failed to train its employees on how to handle and dispose of hazardous waste material at its outlets.
Walmart agreed to pay more than $110 million in penalties to end the decades-long investigation, the Department of Justice said.
Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, suggested the retail giant’s gross violation of environmental regulations may have helped its performance against the competition.
“By improperly handling hazardous waste, pesticides and other materials in violation of federal laws, Walmart put the public and the environment at risk and gained an unfair economic advantage over other companies,” Moreno said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also weighed in on the court case.
“The FBI holds all companies, regardless of size, to the same standards,” FBI Special Agent in Charge David J. Johnson of the San Francisco Field Office said, in a statement released by the Department of Justice. “We will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to ensure there is a level playing field for all businesses and that everyone follows the rules.”
Walmart defended itself, saying it has cleaned up its environmental standards.
“Walmart has a comprehensive and industry-leading hazardous waste program,” Phyllis Harris, senior vice-president and chief compliance officer, said in a statement on Walmart’s webpage. “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.”
This month, Walmart surprised analysts by reporting a 1.4 per cent quarterly decline in sales across the United States.
According to the Walmart website, the retailer operates more than 10,800 retail units under 69 banners in 27 countries. It employs 2.2 million associates around the world — 1.4 million in the United States alone.