Recently, Whole Foods, a health foods grocery chain was fined $3.5 million for violating hazardous waste reporting requirements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company failed to adequately record and catalog its hazardous waste in stores in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. The store issued a statement explaining that it failed to properly report some of the returned products, which qualify as hazardous waste (nail polish, bleach, hand sanitizer, etc.). The company has agreed to pay the fine, in addition to implementing training and providing funding to educate other businesses.
Although this fine may seem harsh or unwarranted, given that the company was not accused of improperly disposing of hazardous waste, and the violation was limited to inadequate record keeping, the fine is warranted nonetheless given how the hazardous waste statute was designed to work. In order to protect human health and the environment from improper treatment or illegal dumping, as well as to reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is generated nationwide, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) gives the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) the power to regulate hazardous waste “from cradle-to-grave.” This means that hazardous waste is tracked throughout its life-cycle, primarily by way of record keeping by multiple parties, including generators and transporters of the hazardous waste.
For this tracking safeguard to work effectively against illegal dumping or other improper disposal, fines must be sufficiently serious to ensure compliance and to discourage a company’s choice to simply opt for paying the fine. Otherwise, RCRA’s “cradle-to-grave” approach would fail. In the Whole Foods case, the substantial fine issued unambiguously signals to other entities the importance of record-keeping and the significant costs they may face if they do not comply with RCRA’s reporting requirements.
Courtney Eggleston, 3L