Last week Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. plead guilty in cases filed by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Francisco to six counts of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail stores across the U.S., including pouring pesticides down the drain. The Bentonville, AR, based company also plead guilty in Kansas City, MO, to violating the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) by failing to properly handle pesticides that had been returned by customers at its stores across the country.
As a result of the three criminal cases brought by the Justice Department, and the related civil case filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Wal-Mart will pay approximately $81.6 million for its unlawful conduct. Coupled with previous actions brought by the states of California and Missouri for the same conduct, Wal-Mart will pay a combined total of more than $110 million to resolve cases alleging violations of federal and state environmental laws. According to the Kansas City Star, the company stated that the fines and penalties would “not be material to its financial position.”
“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 S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“Today, Wal-Mart acknowledged responsibility for violations of federal laws and will pay significant fines and penalties, which will, in part, fund important environmental projects in the communities impacted by the violations and help prevent future harm to the environment.”
From 2006 to 2008, the company sent more than 2 million pounds of damaged containers of pesticides and other hazardous products to a third-party management company, Greenleaf, in Neosho, MO. The products were then mixed together and offered for sale to customers without the required registration, ingredients or use information, which constitutes a violation of FIFRA. Greenleaf was under contract with Wal-Mart to recycle pesticide products, but lacked the necessary FIFRA registrations to mix, repackage and relabel some of the pesticides. Greenleaf also did not have the capacity to handle all the products sent to it by Wal-Mart, resulting in significant releases of hazardous substances. Greenleaf was also convicted of a FIFRA violation and paid a criminal penalty of $200,000 in 2009.
Pursuant to the plea agreement filed in Missouri and accepted by U.S. District Judge John T. Maughmer, Wal-Mart agreed to pay a criminal fine of $11 million and to pay another $3 million to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which will go to that agency’s hazardous waste program and will be used to fund further inspections and education on pesticide regulations for regulators, the regulated community and the public. In addition, Wal-Mart has already spent more than $3.4 million to properly remove and dispose of all hazardous material from Greenleaf’s facility.
“This tough financial penalty holds Wal-Mart accountable for its reckless and illegal business practices that threatened both the public and the environment,” said Tammy Dickinson, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
"Truckloads of hazardous products, including more than 2 million pounds of pesticides, were improperly handled under Wal-Mart’s contract. Today’s criminal fine should send a message to companies of all sizes that they will be held accountable to follow federal environmental laws," Dickinson continued. "Additionally, Wal-Mart’s community service payment will fund important environmental projects in Missouri to help prevent such abuses in the future.”
In conjunction with the company’s guilty pleas in the three criminal cases, Wal-Mart has agreed to pay a $7.628 million civil penalty that will resolve civil violations of FIFRA and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In addition to the civil penalties, Wal-Mart is required to implement a comprehensive, nationwide environmental compliance agreement to manage hazardous waste generated at its stores. The agreement includes requirements to ensure adequate environmental personnel and training at all levels of the company, proper identification and management of hazardous wastes, and the development and implementation of environmental management systems at its stores and return centers. Compliance with this agreement is a condition of probation imposed in the criminal cases.
Clean Water Act Violations
In California, Wal-Mart plead guilty to six misdemeanor counts of negligently violating the Clean Water Act. According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, from a date unknown until January 2006, 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. As a result, hazardous wastes, including pesticides, 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 U.S.
The six criminal charges were filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles and San Francisco (each office filed three charges), and the two cases were consolidated in the Northern District of California, where the guilty pleas were formally entered before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero. As part of a plea agreement, Wal-Mart was sentenced to pay a $40 million criminal fine and an additional $20 million that will fund various community service projects, including opening a $6 million Retail Compliance Assistance Center that will help retail stores across the nation learn how to properly handle hazardous waste.
“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 owns more than 4,000 stores nationwide that sell thousands of products which are flammable, corrosive, reactive, toxic or otherwise hazardous under federal law. The products that contain hazardous materials include pesticides, solvents, detergents, paints, aerosols and cleaners. Once discarded, these products are considered hazardous waste under federal law.
These criminal cases are a result of investigations conducted by the FBI and the EPA, which received substantial assistance from the California Department of Substance and Toxics Control and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. In Missouri, the case was prosecuted by Deputy U.S. Attorney Gene Porter and ENRD Senior Trial Attorney Jennifer Whitfield of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). In California, the cases were prosecuted in Los Angeles by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph O. Johns and in San Francisco by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Geis.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLEAN WATER ACT pages for more related news on this topic.
On the steps of New York City Hall on Feb. 23, national, community, food, urban and labor group leaders hosted a press conference to address Walmart’s negative impact on the food system. Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), spoke at the event, which also marked the release of the new Food & Water Watch report, “Why Walmart Can’t Fix the Food System,” an analysis of the rift between Walmart’s marketing claims and the true impact the company has on the food system.
This week, as the largest food retailer in the U.S. released its fourth quarter earnings, community leaders in New York gathered to call attention to the company’s business model, which squeezes farmers, workers and processors, and drives food production to become more consolidated and industrialized. While Walmart has been busy promoting itself as the solution to lack of access to healthy food in urban communities, the message from City Hall was loud and clear—Walmart is not the answer and they are not wanted in New York City.
“Plunking down a big-box store in the middle of a community with a lack of access to healthy food will not solve this complicated problem,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Selling fruit and vegetables is one step, but all communities, especially those that are struggling financially, will be better served for the long term by local businesses that put money back into the community by paying livable wages and buying from local and regional suppliers and farmers whenever possible.”
“This report shows Walmart has been a source of tremendous harm and devastation to workers, businesses, and communities across the country,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), UFCW. “Walmart is a great destroyer, not the great savior it claims to be. We are working with a large coalition to keep Walmart out of New York City.”
“Walmart can’t fix the food system, just like it can’t get our communities out of poverty,” said Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN. “It is ultimately the source of the problem, not the solution.”
“I don’t believe for one second that Walmart cares whether or not I have fresh vegetables; their bottom line is opening more stores and making money,” said East New York resident Maria Maisonett.
“Part of the challenge to ending hunger in our communities is creating a sustainable food system that provides affordable, healthy food while also paying a living wage to food producers and other workers in the food system,” said Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network of NYS. Walmart unfortunately is a major factor in the corporate consolidation of our food supply, making it harder for local farmers and communities to make a decent living, while also pushing out other food retailers. Too much of Walmart’s publicity about support local and organic foods is a marketing devise rather than supporting a truly local, decentralized, environmentally sound, sustainable food system.”
“Brooklyn doesn’t need a Walmart to eat more healthy food. It needs local businesses, paying fair wages, and a focus on a stronger sustainable regional supply chain,” said Benjamin Solotaire, a volunteer with the Brooklyn Food Coalition.
“It is no surprise that the Food & Water Watch report shows how Wal-Mart is not a solution to food deserts but the actual problem,” says Food Chain Workers Alliance organizer Diana Robinson. “Whether it be from factory workers in Bangladesh to warehouse and retail workers in the United States, Wal-Mart has a proven record of committing labor rights violations with its own employees. Because of Wal-Mart’s dominance in the retail market, it drives down the prices that it pays its suppliers, which, in turn, drives down wages and working conditions throughout the food supply chain. 20 million people in the U.S. work in the food system, and many of the low-wage food workers live in food deserts because they cannot afford to live in neighborhoods with reasonable access to affordable fresh and healthy food. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped. Wal-Mart’s business practice of super low wages and super low prices is not the answer to food desserts.”
For more information, click here.
Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.