Photo © Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

The largest retail chain in the United States, Walmart, has been found guilty of disposing of toxic waste in court cases filed by the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Walmart, which is also the largest U.S. employer, will have to pay a fine of more than $100 million for breaching environmental regulations across the country.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the company pleaded guilty to dumping toxic chemicals such as fertilizer, pesticide and bleach in sewage systems. Walmart admitted a total of six counts of violations of the Clean Water Act by disposing of hazardous materials in garbage receptacles and sewage systems at more than 4,000 retail outlets across the United States. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice found the retailer guilty of breaching federal laws by blending pesticides at a Missouri recycling facility and then reselling the end product, which was against the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The Arkansas-based company also agreed to settle a civil case suit brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In total, the retailer has agreed to pay over $110 million in penalties, the Department of Justice announced.

The state of California started an investigation into the company in 2005, following a report from a San Diego County Health Department inspector who had witnessed a Walmart employee pouring bleach into a sewer drain. The lengthy investigation involved more than 20 prosecutors and 32 environmental groups, the San Francisco Chronicle noted.

Melinda Haag, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, commented that in its capacity as a major employer with numerous sites located across the country, the retailer is not just responsible for the products it has on its shelves but also for large quantities of hazardous materials coming from damaged products returned by customers.

Documents presented to the court stated that illegal disposal of chemicals took place in at least 16 California counties in the period between 2003 and 2005. Federal investigators found that Walmart did not provide training to its employees on the proper handling, storage and dumping hazardous chemicals.

Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said that Walmart has failed to comply with regulations regarding the proper handling of such materials and waste and has potentially put public health and the environment at risk. Moreno even suggested that by violating federal regulations Walmart has gained an unfair advantage over its competitors.

Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the company, stated that the chemicals were in fact household items that could be found in every home, such as detergents, hairspray and deodorants. Some employees would dispose of broken bottles of bleach in the trash can instead of dumping them in the designated container, she explained. Buchanan added that Walmart staff are now trained every year on how to dispose of chemicals found in stores.