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Whole Foods Pays $1.6M To Settle NorCal Hazardous Waste Case

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- Whole Foods and two related entities will pay $1.64 million to settle a civil law enforcement action alleging that it violated California laws for the safe storage, handling and disposal of hazardous waste over a five-year period, prosecutors said Thursday.

According to the complaint filed in Yolo County by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley and 21 other district and city attorneys, Whole Foods Market California Inc., Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets Inc. and WFM-WO Inc. unlawfully handled and disposed of various hazardous wastes and materials throughout the state over that period.

The prosecutors said the hazardous wastes and materials included batteries, electronic devices, ignitable liquids, aerosol products, cleaning agents and other flammable, reactive, toxic and corrosive materials.

"We remain ever vigilant in the protection of our natural resources and the proper disposal of hazardous waste is vitally important in safeguarding the environment from toxic pollutants that pose a threat to the health of humans, wildlife and plants," O'Malley said in a statement.

Prosecutors said the investigation of Whole Foods began when Yolo County regulators found the company's documentation of employee hazardous-waste training to be incomplete. They said a statewide check confirmed that those deficiencies were systemic.

Prosecutors said the judgment is designed to prevent Whole Foods stores from committing similar hazardous-waste violations in the future.

The judgment requires Whole Foods Market California Inc., Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets Inc. and WFM-WO Inc. to properly label, package, and store hazardous waste to minimize the risk of exposure to employees and customers and to ensure that incompatible wastes do not combine to cause dangerous chemical reactions.

The judgment also requires the companies to properly document their hazardous waste and dispose of their hazardous waste at authorized disposal facilities.

The settlement calls for the Whole Foods entities to pay $1.2 million in civil penalties, $202,800 to reimburse the costs of the investigation and $237,900 to fund supplemental environmental projects.

In addition, the Whole Foods entities must improve the training of their staff and management in the handling of hazardous waste and hire an employee to strengthen their hazardous waste programs.

There are five Whole Foods markets in Alameda County and all five are subject to the terms of the civil settlement, O'Malley said.

Whole Foods didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton praised the company for reaching the settlement, saying in a statement, "I would like to mention that the Whole Foods companies were cooperative throughout our investigation and prosecution while we worked toward a fair resolution to their previous deficiencies."

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