What environmental impacts should our community expect

What environmental impacts should our community expect if we allow Wal-Mart to open up a store nearby?

—Sara Jones, Davenport, IA

With more than 6,000 stores spread out across the globe—Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest retailer, hands down, and also a magnet for criticism for its low wages, inadequate health coverage and effect on struggling downtowns. Wal-Mart has also had its share of environmental problems.

Environmentalists complain that the company’s stores—often on the outskirts of rural communities—eat up open space, replacing farms and forests with concrete and pavement. And the company has been fined repeatedly in recent years by various agencies for environmental negligence. For example, in 2005, Wal-Mart paid $1.15 million in fines to the state of Connecticut for the improper storage of pesticides and other toxins that polluted streams near its stores there, according to the website WakeUpWalMart.com.

A year earlier, Florida fined the company $765,000 for violating petroleum storage tank laws at its auto service centers. The company admits that it failed to register its fuel tanks and to install devices that prevent overflow, and that it did not perform monthly monitoring, and that it blocked state inspections. That same year, Georgia fined Wal-Mart $150,000 for contaminating water outside of Atlanta.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency penalized the company $3 million in 2004 for violating the Clean Water Act in nine states. The company was also forced to change its building practices so as to prevent future water contamination. This came on the heels of a $1 million fine for Clean Water Act violations at 17 locations in four other states. Wal-Mart also agreed to establish a $4.5 million environmental management plan to improve its compliance with environmental laws at construction sites.

Wal-Mart says that change is afoot within the company. CEO Lee Scott has said that sustainability in all its forms is a key concern moving forward. “As one of the largest companies in the world, with an expanding global presence, environmental problems are our problems,” Scott told company employees last October.

Scott’s green vision includes powering facilities and fleet with renewable energy, cutting back on waste, and selling green products. Wal-Mart reportedly crafted their greening plan with the help of former Vice President Al Gore. Commitments include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent at existing locations 20 percent, and investing $500 million in environmental improvements each year moving forward.

Wal-Mart is also reportedly ramping up plans to offer organic produce and using local farms to save transportation costs. According to Ron McCormick, an executive in the company’s produce division, Wal-Mart is already buying a wide variety of produce based on what’s available in each region, instead of shipping produce across the country. “Our whole focus is: How can we reduce food-miles?” he says.

The green attitude also extends to other products, with the company increasing offerings of sustainably harvested fish and organic cotton clothing and bedding. Critics say Wal-Mart is so focused on profit that such efforts will never stick. Only time will tell if Scott’s vision for a greener Wal-Mart becomes reality.

CONTACTS: Wal-Mart, www.walmartstores.com; WakeUpW

alMart.com, www.wakeupwalmart.com.