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Improperly Managing Hazardous Waste Costs Retailer $110 Million in Penalties

June 4, 2013
Wal-Mart has pleaded guilty to charges of environmental crimes, including the mishandling of hazardous waste and pesticides, and agreed to pay a total of $110 million to settle the cases.  The plea agreements end a decade-long investigation into the retailer’s hazardous waste management practices and send a message to all companies – of any type and size – that the storage, transport and disposal of hazardous waste is strictly controlled by federal and state law.  Referenced below are specific issues that may impact general contractors. Wal-Mart admitted to violating the Clean Water Act (CWA) by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail stores across the United States. The company also admitted to improperly handling pesticides in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The U.S. Department of Justice is handling these criminal cases, which were brought on top of the related civil case filed by U.S. EPA against Wal-Mart – also for improper handling of hazardous waste, pesticides, and other materials in violation of FIFRA – as well as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  Court documents show that prior to 2006, the company did not train its employees on how to handle and dispose hazardous materials at its stores. EPA specifically states the following RCRA violations at 100’s of Wal-Mart stores:
  • Failure to make a hazardous waste determination;
  • Failure to prepare proper safety documentation (a hazardous waste manifest);
  • Offering hazardous waste to unpermitted treatment, storage, and disposal facilities; and
  • Failure to meet hazardous waste, handling, storage, and emergency response requirements.
As a result, prosecutors allege that waste was tossed into municipal trash bins or poured into storm sewer systems. Under a plea agreement, Wal-Mart will pay $60 million in fines and community service payments in California; $14 million in fines and community service payments in Missouri; and a $7.6 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fine, according to a Justice Department statement.  When combined with previous actions brought by California and Missouri for the same conduct, Wal-Mart will pay a total of more than $110 million to resolve cases alleging violations of federal and state environmental laws. Waste Management Issues That May Impact General Contractors The major federal law on waste disposal, RCRA, governs the transportation, storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste.  A separate federal law, CWA, prohibits the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters.  Any discharges of hazardous substances must be reported to federal, state and local officials promptly.  Not only are there steep penalties for violating federal environmental laws (up to $37,500 per day per violation under most statutes), but a company can be required to pay the costs of cleaning up any contamination resulting from a violation. These clean-up costs can be significant. Contractors use numerous hazardous materials during construction operations that, when disposed of, are considered hazardous waste.  Typical construction materials that are classified as hazardous include: paints (containing naphtha, solvents or heavy metals such as lead), solvents, thinners, cleaning fluids (carbon tetrachloride, ethanol, toluene, kerosene, MEK), acids and bases, some adhesives, pesticides, herbicides, septic wastes, asphalt/petroleum products, used oil, and some curing and sealing compounds.  In addition, contractors may come into contact with hazardous waste when they uncover (or discover) buried or discarded drums containing hazardous waste or contaminated soil material that has been excavated. Ultimately, contractors can be deemed generators and even transporters of substances resulting from their (or a sub-contractor's) operations at a jobsite. A short list of environmental exposures specific to waste management on a construction project include: liability as a result of improper handling of wastes (failure to properly characterize waste, improper preparation of a manifest, improper storage or treatment of wastes); improper transporting of waste (failure to use registered transporter); and improper disposal of waste at an unpermitted facility.  Proper storage and disposal of construction materials and hazardous waste from a construction site is necessary to prevent the discharge of pollutants to storm drains and watercourses. Hazardous Waste 101: RCRA Overview Do you generate or handle hazardous wastes (i.e., waste that poses potential harm to human health and the environment)? A list of hazardous wastes and their allowed concentrations is in the regulations that implement RCRA.  These regulations also contain requirements for managing, treating, and disposing of hazardous wastes. For example, RCRA regulations contain requirements for:
  • Generators of hazardous wastes. The requirements for generators of hazardous wastes are based on the amount of hazardous waste generated. Generators of large amounts of hazardous waste are subject to more regulatory requirements than are generators of small amounts of hazardous wastes. The RCRA regulations list quantities of hazardous waste that determine whether a generator is large or small.
  • Storage of hazardous wastes. Hazardous materials that are being used for their intended purpose can be stored indefinitely. However, once the material is no longer usable, the material is considered waste and time restrictions apply. The RCRA regulations specify the amount of time hazardous wastes are allowed to be stored at a site. If the storage time is exceeded, a RCRA permit is required.
  • Transport, treatment, and disposal of hazardous wastes. To transport hazardous wastes, a transporter must be registered with either EPA or a state as a hazardous waste transporter. A generator is responsible for ensuring that a transporter is authorized to transport hazardous waste and that the hazardous waste is delivered to a RCRA-permitted treatment or disposal facility. The generator also must sign the hazardous wastes manifest used to track the transport of a hazardous waste to a permitted treatment or disposal facility. In addition, hazardous waste must be treated and disposed of at a facility permitted or licensed for that purpose by the state or federal government.
For more information on RCRA hazardous waste and the hazardous waste requirements, contact EPA’s Office of Solid Waste Call Center at (800) 424- 9346.  For information on state-specific hazardous waste requirements, contact the appropriate state agency.  State-specific information is available online at: If you need additional information, please contact Leah Pilconis, senior environmental advisor to AGC, at pilconisl@agc.org.
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