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 agencies that found violations at 236 of Wal-Mart's stores and distribution centers across California, including Sam's Club warehouse stores, 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 boy was found playing in a mound of fertilizer outside a Walmart garden section. The fertilizer had chemicals harmful to people's respiratory systems.
"Today a corporate giant has been held accountable for its actions, and Wal-Mart is cleaning up its act," Dumanis said.
The investigation by federal, state and local authorities 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.
Investigators said they found violations at Wal-Mart locations in 42 of California's 58 counties.
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Karen Doty said officials have been looking into similar violations at other big-box stores.