EPA Proposes to Fine Wal-Mart for Clean Water Act Violations

EPA has proposed a $157,500 penalty against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Wal-Mart De Puerto Rico Inc. for inadequately addressing stormwater pollution at its 27.8 acre construction site in Caguas, Puerto Rico. EPA issued a complaint based on Wal-Mart's failure to obtain a permit for discharges from construction activities in a timely manner and, subsequent failure to comply with the requirements of its general permit, issued by the agency under the Clean Water Act. Under federal regulations, Wal-Mart has the right to request a hearing on the proposed penalty.

"Bringing construction sites into compliance with EPA's stormwater requirements will result in less pollution entering the nation's water bodies through uncontrolled runoff," said Acting EPA Regional Administrator Kathleen C. Callahan. "Companies such as Wal-Mart need to understand the importance of properly managing their stormwater and complying with the requirements of their permits."

The June 16 complaint charges that Wal-Mart violated the requirements of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) General Permit for Discharges from Large and Small Construction Activities, also known as a Construction General Permit. In September 2004, EPA inspected the construction site and subsequently ordered Wal-Mart and its general contractor, Constructora Santiago, to comply with the requirements of the NPDES permit. The agency found that Wal-Mart failed to: develop a plan for preventing stormwater pollution, stabilize the site once construction had stopped for a period of 14 days, perform inspections, properly maintain records, and properly maintain stormwater controls. Stormwater runoff from the site can discharge to Jimenez Garcia Creek, a tributary of the Rio Grande de Loiza.

Nationwide, EPA negotiated a prior agreement in 2001 with Wal-Mart to address stormwater violations at 17 sites in several states. The settlement included a penalty of $1 million and required Wal-Mart to develop a stormwater training program for its contractors and to inspect and oversee stormwater controls at construction sites. EPA subsequently determined through inspections that Wal-Mart had not achieved consistent compliance at construction sites, and filed another, as yet unresolved, nationwide action against Wal-Mart in 2004.

Stormwater runoff from construction activities can have a significant impact on water quality. As stormwater flows over a construction site, it picks up pollutants like sediment, debris and chemicals. Polluted stormwater runoff can harm or kill fish and other wildlife. Sedimentation can destroy aquatic habitat and high volumes of runoff can cause stream bank erosion.

The NPDES Stormwater program requires operators of construction sites one acre or larger (including smaller sites that are part of a larger common plan of development) to obtain authorization to discharge stormwater under an NPDES construction stormwater permit. Permit requirements vary by state. Begin by researching the specific requirements in your state. You might already be subject to local erosion and sediment control requirements, but that doesn't release you from the requirements of the NPDES program at the state or EPA level. Although you must comply with both sets of requirements, in most cases they have been designed to be complementary. Contact your permitting authority to find out exactly what you need to do.

Additional information about stormwater discharges from construction activities can be accessed at EPA's Web site at http://cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/stormwater/const.cfm. The Construction Industry Compliance Assistance Web site (http://www.cicacenter.org) provides concise plain language explanations of the federal environmental regulations that apply to the construction industry and links to state and local regulators. The site is supported by an EPA grant.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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