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Wal-Mart's Toxic Dumping: Latest Woe to hit U.S. Retailer

Image: Wal-Mart's Toxic Dumping: Latest Woe to hit U.S. Retailer A public service bench ad stands in front of a newly opened Walmart store in the Altadena neighborhood of Los Angeles, Tuesday, May 28, 2013.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013 02:04 PM

By Michael Mullins

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From toxic dumping to workers striking to safety concerns at overseas manufacturing facilities, Wal-Mart has endured a year of bad publicity.

The latest public relations nightmare to impact the multinational retailer image is their admission to dumping hazardous waste across California on Tuesday.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer which earns more than $400 billion annually, will pay an $81 million fine as part of a plea deal in connection with the dumping.

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According to company spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, Wal-Mart pleaded guilty in San Francisco federal court to misdemeanor counts of negligently dumping pollutants from its stores into sanitation drains across the state.

"We have fixed the problem," Buchanan said. "We are obviously happy that this is the final resolution."

Tuesday's plea agreement concluded a nearly decade-old investigation that entailed 32 environmental groups and more than 20 prosecutors.

According to federal prosecutors, the company did not adequately train its employees on how to handle and dispose of hazardous materials at its stores, the Associated Press reported.

Between 2003 and 2005, illegal hazardous waste dumping occurred in 16 California counties, court documents reveal.

In addition to the recent toxic dumping admission, the retail giant was linked to a deadly garment factory fire in Bangladesh late last year due to its decision to not upgrade its manufacturing facilities in prior years over cost concerns.

During an April 2011 meeting in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Wal-Mart, along with several other major U.S. retailers, met with the nation’s clothing manufacturers.

According to documents obtained by Bloomberg News, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart sourcing director, said at the meeting that paying manufacturers more to help upgrade their facilities was too costly.

In the days after the Bangladesh factory fire, Wal-Mart claimed the facility was operating "in direct violation of our policies." In a statement Wal-Mart added, "Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier. ... The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh."

Though it is not clear what caused November’s fire, industry observers claim many such fires are caused by poorly identified exits and a shortage of accessible emergency exits, which in many cases are blocked by merchandise.

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Also in November, Wal-Mart suffered from a series of worker strikes across the nation, bringing attention to longtime criticism of the retailer from detractors who claim the company has historically underpaid its employees.

The protest was organized by Making Change at Wal-Mart (MCW), a union-backed employee coalition that for years has been battling Wal-Mart management in their attempts to unionize the work force.

Protesting low wages, high health premiums and alleged management retaliation, workers planned walkouts throughout the week of Black Friday at Wal-Mart stores in Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Louisiana, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

The exact number of walkouts that occurred around the country was unclear, however the protesters' objective of bringing the major retailer to its knees during the most shopped day of the year clearly did not succeed.

What also remains unclear is the toll the protests, factory safety concerns and toxic dumping has had on Wal-Mart's image in the eyes of the American consumer.

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