California is accusing Target Corp. of being a poor environmental citizen.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown, 20 district attorneys and the Los Angeles city attorney sued the Minneapolis-based retailer on Monday, charging the company with routinely dumping hazardous waste from its California stores and distribution centers into the state's landfills.
Target has been hit with more than 300 violations of California's hazardous waste control laws since 2001, according to the attorney general's office. The lawsuit seeks the $25,000 maximum penalty for each violation.
With some of the toughest environmental regulations in the country, California law requires Target to hire licensed hazardous waste haulers to dispose of products such as bleach, paints, pesticides, oven cleaners and aerosol products that are returned or damaged during shipping or stocking.
In a statement, Target said it is committed to protecting its workers and customers, and to complying with environmental laws. Target has 236 retail stores and four distribution centers in California.
"We are very disappointed that the California attorney general has chosen to take this step," Target said. "We have been participating in a cooperative and constructive dialogue on this topic with the attorney general and a number of district attorneys for almost three years, including providing access to our stores and distribution centers in an effort to resolve this issue. We continue to believe that further review of our practices will lead to the conclusion that our program not only meets but surpasses the requirements of California law."
The attorney general's office launched an investigation in March 2006 because of what it said were ongoing violations.
The lawsuit lists nearly a dozen examples of what it described as "past, ongoing and persistent violations," including putting mercury-containing light bulbs, medical waste and tons of electronic waste into regular garbage containers and trash compactors. Three of the violations occurred in the past month, while another goes back to March 2002, when a store in Sacramento County was evacuated, and several employees sent to the hospital, after an employee put liquid pool chlorine into a trash compactor, according to the suit.
In January 2008, Target sent several tons of personal hygiene products, such as shampoo and deodorant, as well as bleach and ant-and-roach killer, to a Los Angeles food bank that were so damaged that Target paid a hazardous waste hauler more than $5,000 to dispose of the "flammable, toxic or corrosive wastes," the suit said.
In pointing out what he described as Target's "willful disregard for California's hazardous waste laws," Brown congratulated Kmart, which on Monday agreed to pay $8.65 million in civil penalties and other costs to settle a similar suit.
Target markets itself heavily as a good corporate citizen that invests in local communities. It's unclear whether the California lawsuit will tarnish that image, as consumers nationwide become more sensitive to environmental concerns.
But retail expert Britt Beemer of America's Research Group, who surveys consumers each week about their shopping behavior and moods, said such legal actions "matter very little."
"Most people will say, 'It's going to the landfill? Give me a break,'" Beemer said. "Now, if they were dumping into a local creek, that'd be different."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335