Wal-Mart Adds Toxic Dumping to Its List of Blunders

Another condemnation of Wal-Mart’s (NYSE:WMT) corporate practices was made this week. Already, the company has endured a year of bad publicity around its labor relations in the United States and working conditions in its overseas supply chain. Now, its environmental policies are in the spotlight.

The discount retailer will pay $81 million after pleading guilty Tuesday to criminal charges that its employees dumped hazardous waste across California. Court documents acquired by The Associated Press show illegal dumping occurred in 16 of the state’s 58 counties from Del Norte in the north to Orange in the south between 2003 and 2005. Wal-Mart entered the plea in San Francisco federal court to misdemeanor counts of negligently disposing pollutants from its stores into sanitation drains, a violation of the Clean Water Act.

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Federal prosecutors said Wal-Mart did not train its employees on how to handle and dispose hazardous materials at its stores. As a result, according to the prosecution’s case, waste was tossed into trash bins or poured into sewer systems. On occasion, the waste was also taken to one of the company’s several United States product return centers without proper safety documentation, authorities said. California’s investigation began eight years ago after a San Diego County health department official observed a worker pouring bleach down a drain.

“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,” Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department, told the AP.

The fine will also cover the charges of improperly handling pesticides that the company pleaded guilty to in Kansas City, Missouri. These lawsuits are not the first time that Wal-Mart has been pulled in front of a legal body to settle accusations of improper hazardous waste disposal. In 2010, the retailer agreed to pay $27.6 million to settle similar allegations made by California authorities, and that case led to an overhaul of its hazardous waste compliance program nationwide.

When questioned by the AP, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the company had amended its waste disposal policies and is “obviously happy that this is the final resolution.” She explained that employees are properly trained on how to clean up, transport, and dispose of dangerous products such as fertilizer that are spilled in a store or have had their packaging damaged. Now, workers are armed with scanners that tell them if a damaged package contains a hazardous material.

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Morendo said the fines collected from Wal-Mart “will, in part, fund important environmental projects in the communities impacted by the violations and help prevent future harm to the environment.”

This guilty plea follows a stream of negative reports that have catapulted Wal-Mart into the headlines. Earlier on Tuesday, the union supported worker organization known as Our Walmart began its latest effort in a series of strikes meant to highlight what it says are low wages and abusive working conditions. Protests of the company’s labor practices in the United States followed closely behind growing international scrutiny on how it sources goods from poorer countries. After numerous lethal disasters in the Bangladeshi garment industry, Wal-Mart has been criticized for not joining other large retailers in forming a group that would tighten and enforce safety regulations. Instead, Wal-Mart has said it will conduct its own investigation.

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