Wal-Mart and the Environment

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by Lindsay Robinson

The following article details some of Wal-Mart’s environmental abuses in the United States. Look for future articles about Wal-Mart’s labor, human rights, and community development policies in upcoming issues of this paper.

As people in the Champaign-Urbana area await the opening of a second Wal-Mart store (a Wal-Mart Supercenter), most are completely unaware of the environmental problems that Wal-Mart can bring.

But many people in Connecticut, Washington, and Pennsylvania are angry with the retail giant for violating state water quality standards. Environmental officials in those states have complained of a host of similar problems regarding Wal-Mart construction sites. The Wal-Marts in question did not use the proper methods for clearing the site for construction. When heavy rains pelted the sites, water carried tons of silt to the nearby rivers and streams, threatening not only the life within the waterways but also the drinking water of thousands of people. In 1998 Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued a work stop order at one site, but most of the work had already been completed.

Erosion is not the only environmental problem with Wal-Mart stores. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection sued Wal-Mart over pesticide and fertilizer pollution in its rivers and streams in May 2000. Connecticut claims that 11 Wal-Mart stores left pesticides and fertilizers in the parking lot, when hard rains fell on the lot, the chemicals were carried into rivers and streams, affecting the health of plants, animals, and people.

Environmentalists and community groups across the country are worried because new Wal-Mart stores are constructed at a rapid pace, with one new store opening every two business days. Most states and communities do not have enough resources to enforce their water quality standards and cannot police every construction site. The laws Wal-Mart is violating are on the books, but there is no money to enforce them. According to Wal-Mart’s 2001 annual report, there are already 138 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores open in Illinois, not including those stores under construction, such as the new Supercenter sites in Springfield and Savoy (just south of Champaign).

Environmental inspectors in Dallas complained that the government was going to give Wal-Mart stores special treatment in a water-quality settlement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed different inspection procedures for Wal-Mart stores only. According to James Graham, the EPA’ s top water pollution enforcer, the deal would eliminate some water quality standards in order to give Wal-Mart its own official inspection procedure. The Justice Department dismissed the case, even after the statement by the EPA official, but the EPA is revising the settlement with Wal-Mart.

One of Wal-Mart’s other environmentally destructive policies involves the placement of their stores. Wal-Mart and other “big box” retailers gobble up prime farmland and other natural habitat every day. While we worry about feeding the more than six billion people on this planet, our cities and counties allow the destruction of lush farmland that could provide sustenance for more people. The problem, generally referred to as “urban sprawl,” continues to grow. Communities face the problem of balancing growth and jobs with the protection of the environment and the preservation of their existing economic bases. Sprawl also increases car-dependency for a community, raising the amount of greenhouse gases emitted and causing consumers to use more gas.

While Wal-Mart is busy polluting our lakes and streams, their executives are running a major campaign to show how environmentally friendly they are. Wal-Mart boasts its selection of environmentally conscious products and how much money it gives away to environmental causes. Wal-Mart made $6.3 Billion dollars last year after expenses, giving away $190 million dollars to charity with $1.3 million of that going to environmental causes. While $190 million dollars might sound like a lot of money it only makes up about of 3% of their profits, with only 0.021% of their profits going to help the environment. Wal-Mart causes more damage than it helps to clean up.

Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer and the second largest employer in the United States, behind the federal government. Wal-Mart is huge, and the problems it is associated with are even larger.

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