Two years of dumpster diving and other investigating by district attorneys from across the state ended in an agreement by Safeway to pay $9.87 million in civil penalties for illegally disposing of hazardous materials and pharmaceutical records at their stores and distribution centers.
Under the settlement approved Friday by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Wynne S. Carvill, Safeway will stop doing what it was caught doing in 2012 and 2013 and probably was doing for five and a half years before that. It will also set up procedures and train its employees to properly dispose of dangerous materials, like medications, batteries, detergents, aerosol sprays, hair dye and mascara.
Safeway is just the latest among large retailers caught illegally dumping their toxic waste in California. It is apparently the cost of business (pdf). Wal-Mart paid $27.6 million in 2010 to settle similar allegations. Target paid $22.5 million the next year, Walgreens ponied up $16.6 million and CVS paid $13.75 million in 2012, Save Mart settled for $2.55 million and Lowe’s agreed to pay $18.1 million in 2014.
District attorneys in Orange and San Joaquin counties started probing the grocery chain in 2012 when they stumbled on Safeway sending hazardous materials back to its own distribution center for disposal while investigating another company.
“That in and of itself is illegal,” Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Ken Mifsud told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Hazardous waste needs to handled by licensed transporters, and it needs to be properly labeled. None of that was happening.”
The investigation grew and eventually included 42 district attorneys and two city attorneys. They found Safeway was routinely sending hazardous waste to local landfills unequipped to handle it. One of the dangers is that the material will leach into the water table over time.
Along with store products, Safeway was also tossing the pharmacy medical records of its customers. Those documents contained names, phone numbers, addresses and medical information and should have been shredded to prevent an invasion of privacy and identity theft.
Safeway, which operates more than 500 stores and distribution centers in California, sold itself to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management last March and is in the process of merging with Albertsons. The chain also operates under the name Vons, Pavilions and Pak ‘n Save.
Safeway did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement.