SAN DIEGO — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has agreed to pay $27.6 million to settle allegations that it improperly handled and dumped hazardous waste at stores across California in a case that led to changes in the retailer's practices nationwide, prosecutors said Monday.
The settlement ends a five-year investigation involving more than 20 prosecutors and 32 environmental groups. They alleged that each of the company's 236 stores and distribution centers across California, including Sam's Club warehouse stores, were in violation of environmental laws and regulations, said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Wal-Mart was accused of improperly disposing of pesticide, fertilizer, paint, aerosols and other chemicals. In one case, Dumanis 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.
"Today a corporate giant has been held accountable for its actions, and Wal-Mart is cleaning up its act," Dumanis said.
Wal-Mart still may shell out more money because of civil and criminal investigations by federal officials into allegations that the company's handling of hazardous waste violated environmental laws in California, Missouri and Washington, D.C. The federal cases are still pending, including in California.
California's state investigation started in 2005 when an employee from the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health saw a worker pouring bleach down a drain, prosecutors said.
Phyllis Harris, who handles Wal-Mart's environmental affairs, said the company has improved since the violations were discovered.
"It's important to note that these incidents happened at least four years ago," she said. "Since then, we have worked closely with the state of California on a comprehensive hazardous waste plan that includes improved training programs, policies and procedures."
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart now identifies which products are hazardous and has nearly 50 new operating procedures detailing how its employees should handle them properly.
Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar said the new practices should put the retailer's stores in compliance across the country.
The company will pay $20 million in penalties to the various prosecuting and investigating agencies, more than $1.6 million in investigative costs and $3 million for environmental projects. It also will invest $3 million to guarantee its stores will remain in compliance, prosecutors said.
"This should serve as a warning to all companies doing business in the state and in San Diego County that they will not be allowed to flaunt environmental laws in place to keep our communities clean and safe – no matter how large or small the corporation," Dumanis said.
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Karen Doty said officials have been looking into similar violations at other big-box stores, including a pending investigation into Target Corp.