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California sues ‘recalcitrant’ Walmart over hazardous waste dump

Despite agreeing to stop dumping hazardous waste in California landfills in 2010, the state says the mega-retailer has continued to foul the Golden State with its trash.

(CN) — More than a decade ago, Walmart paid California $25 million and agreed to change its waste-disposal practices following a five-year probe. California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Monday the mega-retailer never stopped trashing California.

"When a big box store disposes of unwanted goods just like the rest of us, they need to do so properly. Unfortunately Walmart has failed to do that on a grand scale, damaging our environment and jeopardizing the health of our communities
by illegally disposing of hazardous waste at its more than 300 stores across the state,” Bonta said at a video conference announcing a lawsuit filed Monday morning in Alameda County Superior Court.

The lawsuit by the state and 12 counties accuses Walmart of dumping batteries, pesticides, aerosol cans, toxic cleaning supplies, and items containing confidential customer information over the last six years, fouling the air and poisoning California’s drinking water.

"We're not talking about a few batteries and can of insect killer here. Walmart's own audits found the company is illegally disposing of hazardous waste in California at a rate of more than 1 million items each year,” he said.

Monday's action harkens back to Walmart's settlement of similar claims in 2010. In a statement announcing that agreement, Phyllis Harris, Walmart’s vice president of environmental compliance, proclaimed that the company had cleaned up its act.

“Environmental sustainability is a priority at Walmart, and we take our compliance responsibilities very seriously. [W]e have worked closely with the state of California on a comprehensive hazardous waste plan that includes improved training programs, policies and procedures,” she said.

But Bonta said further investigations from 2015 to 2021 revealed that it had not.

“Walmart is still at it,” he said, adding that Walmart has illegally dumped 159,600 pounds of waste every year for the past five years. In trash compactors taken from Walmart stores in 13 counties, state investigators found dozens of electronic and medical waste products, and even customer records with personal information.

“We are where we are today because we have a recalcitrant entity in Walmart who, despite a prior settlement, has failed to comply with its duties under the law,” Bonta said.

The lawsuit seeks civil penalties under the state’s health and safety codes, along with an order barring Walmart from violating California’s Hazardous Waste Control Law and Medical Waste Management Act.

"Our hazardous waste laws are clear. Other companies manage to comply with those laws,” said Meredith Williams, director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control “Walmart, more than anyone, had the means to comply given all the specifications based on the prior violations and actions. And so it's quite astounding that they continue to violate these hazardous waste control laws.”

In an emailed statement, Walmart said the state is simply asking too much. "We have met with the state numerous times and walked them through our industry-leading hazardous waste compliance programs in an effort to avoid litigation. Instead, they filed this unjustified lawsuit. The state is demanding a level of compliance regarding waste disposal from our stores of common household products and other items that goes beyond what is required by law. We intend to defend the company," said spokesperson Jacquelyn Cook.

Cook further characterized Monday's lawsuit as a money grab, writing that it comes as a San Diego court found that the company had met the requirements of the 2010 settlement.

"Yet, as the court was prepared to relieve Walmart of its obligations under the settlement, the attorney general’s office launched a new investigation with new rules in hopes that Walmart would enter another settlement requiring another substantial financial payment," Cook said.

She added the company's trash compactors are cleaner than most. "Audits of our compactor waste conducted or overseen by the California attorney general have shown the waste in our compactors contain at most 0.4% of items of potential concern they’ve identified," Cook said. "The statewide average is 3% based on a CalRecycle statewide solid waste study, so Walmart’s compactors are far cleaner than the state average."

Bonta's office disputes the quantity of hazardous waste items. In response, the AG's office noted that the new complaint details its continued noncompliance with waste disposal laws. It also cites an internal Walmart study from 2016 that confirms the state's calculation of the amount of potentially hazardous waste items within each of its trash compactors.

"Walmart, like all companies, has a responsibility to comply with state laws regardless of whether or not they are under a court ordered injunction," a spokesperson from Bonta's press office said.


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