Wal-Mart fined for dumping hazardous waste in US

Wal-Mart fined for dumping hazardous waste in US

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Author: Sophie Wilkinson

In May 2013, US store Wal-Mart pleaded guilty to dumping hazardous waste in California and Missouri over a number of years. It has agreed to pay almost $82m (£54m) in civil and criminal charges.

As far back as 2003 there were reported incidents where Wal-Mart staff improperly disposed of products such as bleach and fertilizer in waste bins and local sewer systems, when they should have been dealt with as hazardous waste.

What emerged during the investigation and trial was that Wal-Mart's system of compliance and staff training for dealing with hazardous waste was not adequate. The company has since implemented a new programme educating employees how to handle the waste, and they have created a Wal-Mart compliance office.

Wal-Mart stated: "Once we learned of these allegations, we looked into it, investigated it, and decided to put this programme in place."

In total, Wal-Mart has paid more than $110m to resolve these incidents, but given that its revenues were in the region of $128 billion last year, the fines imposed are not expected to seriously dent their finances.

Could we see similar prosecutions in England and Wales?

In the Wal-Mart case, the prosecution pursued charges in relation to incidents which were at least 10-years-old.

For such a prosecution to succeed in the UK, an offence would need to have been committed at the time of the relevant act, as legislation does not as a rule have retrospective effect.

More serious offences rarely have a time limit by which a prosecution can be taken, although the enforcement body should not delay (and may have a prosecution stayed through delay, where prejudice can be shown to the defendant). Less serious offences, which can only be tried in magistrates' courts, are generally subject to six or twelve month time limits. For civil actions, there is a six-year time period from the date the cause of action accrued.

UK businesses can learn a practical lesson from the Wal-Mart case, because they have a duty of care to ensure hazardous waste is dealt with appropriately - if your employees deal with hazardous waste at work, you should ensure you have effective and adequate training and procedures in place to ensure staff deal with it appropriately (from both safety and environmental perspectives), thereby minimising the risk of prosecution.