Always a Cover-Up at Wal-Mart. Always
Six months ago, the Orange County district attorney’s office announced it had won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Wal-Mart for illegally dumping hazardous waste—everything from pesticides, chemicals, paints and aerosols to acid, fertilizer and motor oil—at 236 stores throughout California. The settlement, a whopping $27.6 million, is among the largest payouts involving environmental abuses in state history.
In its settlement with the DA’s office, the company did not admit wrongdoing, but it did promise to never do it again and agreed to train employees in methods for identifying and handling hazardous waste. Yet while it appears that all this is a major victory for advocates of environmental protection and corporate responsibility, at least one person isn’t celebrating: Kathrine Shimaji, a former employee of Wal-Mart’s Foothill Ranch store who exposed the illegal dumping in the first place.
According to Shimaji, while two low-level employees were fired, convicted of the illegal dumping and jailed for the offense, the company supervisors—who ordered them to illegally dispose of the waste, and then fired her when she complained about what was happening—faced no penalties whatsoever.
As the DA’s May 3, 2010, press release on the court victory noted, the massive case began at the Foothill Ranch store, where Wal-Mart “was found to have dumped expired toxic fertilizer in a large planter.” The planter measured 10 feet by 200 feet and was located just upslope from a storm drain connected to the 241 toll road. “This fertilizer was determined to be hazardous and had entered a storm drain due to rain and the illegal disposal,” the release states. “The fertilizer was tested and deemed to be toxic hazardous waste, making it potentially dangerous to people, animals and the environment.”
Back in August 2005, when the dumping took place, Shimaji was working inventory control at the Foothill Ranch store when she saw Dean Andrew Valtier, a Wal-Mart Garden “associate”—that’s Wal-Mart-speak for “employee”—unloading a forklift full of damaged bags of herbicide and fertilizer behind the store. “It was damaged product, just beaten-up bags of fertilizer,” she says. Shimaji asked Valtier what he was doing, she says, and he responded that he’d been ordered to dump the toxic bags in the store’s trash compactor.
“You can’t compress fertilizer,” Shimaji says she told Valtier. “You have to send that back to the distribution center in Apple Valley.” Later that day, Shimaji went back to the trash compactor and saw the same bags, now empty, lying around. She says she approached one of the store’s assistant managers and said she hoped the bags hadn’t been dumped behind the store because it was raining and the fertilizer would go straight into the storm drain.
“Don’t worry about it,” Shimaji claims the manager responded, laughing.
But when Shimaji left work that evening, she drove behind the store and saw that even more empty bags of fertilizer were there. The following morning, she spoke with yet another store manager and explained her concern about the dumping. The manager, she says, simply stated she had no idea what Shimaji was talking about. So Shimaji brought the manager back to the compactor area and showed her the empty bags and pesticide residue on the blacktop, at which point the manager simply ordered it to be swept up and thrown into the garbage.
But the residue was just a fraction of what had been illegally dumped behind the store, Shimaji says. “I grabbed my pencil and measured an area probably 70 feet long and 10 feet down the hill. That entire area was a half-pencil to a pencil deep, full of fertilizer.” Using a disposable camera she purchased from the store, Shimaji snapped photos of the residue. Then she notified Wal-Mart’s district manager, who told her that he’d arranged for the mess to be cleaned up. But the next day, the residue was still lying on the ground, leaching into the soil and, thanks to the rain of the night before, flowing downhill into the storm drain.
Shimaji called the Irvine Ranch Water District the following morning; the agency put her in contact with the California Department of Fish and Game, which forwarded her complaint to the DA’s office. She also reported the illegal dumping to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and, she says, she won a promise by the company to investigate. Three days later, she arrived at work to find investigators from both the DA’s office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as uniformed Orange County Sheriff’s deputies, swarming behind the store.
Also present were corporate attorneys for Wal-Mart, who, upon learning that Shimaji had cameras with undeveloped photographs of the dumped pesticides, politely offered to have the film developed. Shimaji says a quick-thinking DA’s investigator insisted the cameras were evidence and were therefore leaving with him. Ultimately, the EPA used a vacuum to suck up the dumped waste, filling up no fewer than 60 55-gallon drums.
A month later, one of the managers Shimaji had alerted about the dumping called Shimaji into her office and terminated her, officially for showing another employee who forgot to punch the time clock for a lunch break how to use a computer to retroactively punch out, thus preventing the store from erroneously being hit with a $50 fine for having the employee work more than five hours without a break. Shimaji tried to explain what she’d done, but, she says, the manager looked her in the eye and called her “a threat to the company.”
Wal-Mart did not respond to written and telephoned requests for comment for this story.
After losing her job, Shimaji quickly found new work as a shipping-and-receiving manager with a company that makes MP3 players. She also was the star witness in what became a massive investigation of Wal-Mart’s illegal dumping of hazardous waste throughout California, providing depositions to both the DA’s office and the FBI. She never heard another word about the investigation and was never called to testify. She only learned of the $27.6 million settlement when she read about it in the newspaper.
Although it wasn’t publicized, both Valtier and another Wal-Mart worker, Richard Samedra, were criminally prosecuted by the DA’s office; they spent 90 days and 30 days in jail, respectively. According to Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA’s chief of staff, both men confessed to the crime (which in any case was preserved on security videoape), and Valtier did claim that he’d been ordered to dump the waste by his supervisor, but subsequent investigation suggested otherwise. “We investigated that claim; however, the manager denied it,” said Schroeder. “And we had an independent third-party witness who refuted it.”
Shimaji only learned that Valtier had been put behind bars when she bumped into him while shopping at a supermarket in Foothill Ranch. “You ruined my life,” she says he told her. “I just got out of jail and will be on probation for five years. You turned my life upside-down.” Attempts to locate Valtier for an interview were unsuccessful.
“I’m pissed,” Shimaji adds. “I’m disappointed. Why wasn’t anyone else prosecuted? How come nobody else got fired or sent to jail? These two kids were just doing what they were told to do, and nobody else faced any consequences.”
This article appeared in print as "Always a Cover-Up. Always: The whistleblower who caught Foothill Ranch Wal-Mart employees illegally dumping hazardous waste wants to know why the DA didn’t prosecute the higher-ups."
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