California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced an $11 million settlement against AutoZone Inc., a retailer of automotive parts with about 6,000 stores across the United States, on Tuesday for violating state laws regarding the placement of hazardous waste and mishandling customer information.
The Environmental Protection Unit, or EPU, of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office led the investigations of AutoZone after receiving complaints from Oakland residents that AutoZone customers were leaving used oil and other automotive fluids in the stores’ parking lots. According to Ken Mifsud, an assistant district attorney who is head of the EPU, the EPU conducted waste inspections of AutoZone by auditing the company’s waste at local landfill sites. The EPU found that both AutoZone customers and employees were illegally dumping harmful materials into the stores’ normal trash bins.
The Alameda County DA’s office then contacted offices in other California counties to inquire about whether they had issues. This process led to the launch of a larger investigation of AutoZone that included the DA’s offices of San Diego, Monterey, Riverside and San Francisco counties, among others. According to a press release from Becerra’s office, from August 2013 to September 2015, the offices looked into 56 dumpster bins at 49 AutoZone facilities. The press release also estimates that more than 5 million hazardous waste items have been disposed of improperly by AutoZone in California.
According to Becerra, the violations are a clear threat to public health.
“AutoZone must now pay the price for breaking the law,” Becerra said in the press release. “The California Department of Justice is committed to investigating and holding accountable violators of our laws meant to protect California’s environment and communities.”
According to Mifsud, one of the main reasons that the dumping of hazardous waste is a concern is that over time, toxins penetrate liners laid below the landfill and could potentially enter the water supply. Additionally, much of AutoZone’s trash is ignitable waste that could explode or catch fire in a landfill.
AutoZone will also pay for violating laws that protect confidential consumer information. During Alameda County’s waste auditing investigations, the EPU found not only dangerous material but also customer records. According to Mifsud, documents with a customer’s name, address and phone number must be destroyed before disposal — a company’s failure to do so may put customers at risk for identity theft.
According to the press release, the $11 million settlement against AutoZone consists of $1.35 million for supplemental environmental projects, $8.9 million for civil penalties and $750,000 to reimburse the state for investigative costs. If AutoZone engages in environmental enhancement work valuing at $2 million, the company will be credited with $1 million against the penalties of the lawsuit because this environmental work is not required by law.
“The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office remains steadfast in our effort to ensure all businesses operating within the county and the state comply with the laws and regulations designed to protect the health of our environment,” Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley said in the press release. “When companies ignore or violate these laws, they put our precious natural resources at risk. I thank the Attorney General and my District Attorney colleagues for joining in the ongoing effort to protect our soil, groundwater and oceans from highly dangerous contaminants.”