According to a news release put out yesterday, September 4, by the EPA, national supermarket chain Safeway will soon be putting its money where its serious violation of the Clean Air Act is. A recent settlement with the United States government promises a $600,000 civil penalty and a new program to monitor and reduce hydro-chlorofluorocarbon emissions (a program with an estimated cost of around $4.1 million).
The settlement is a result of Safeway’s widespread violation of the CAA, as it was found that the chain had failed to repair a number of refrigeration coolant leaks in a timely fashion and had been shirking on maintenance records for their refrigeration units. The leaks released HCFC-22, or hydro-chlorofluorocarbon-22, a potent greenhouse gas and ozone depleting compound. Under the terms of the settlement, Safeway must reduce its corporation-wide leaks from its current 25% to 18% by 2015 and reduce the emissions of its highest emitting stores by 10% for each of those three years.
So far as the CAA is concerned, this is one hell of a victory. This is the largest case the CAA has had, covering the chain’s 659 stores across the country. Safeway is the second largest supermarket chain in the US, with annual revenues in the tens of billions (according to the release, their 2012 revenue was $44.2 billion).
Managing to land a settlement like this is a big deal for the EPA and the CAA. It closely follows the large fines laid on Wal-Mart in May of this year, which all told (across a number of violations of the Clean Water Act and Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act in multiple states) will cost the Bentonville, Arkansas based corporation $110 million to resolve. These two cases represent monumental victories on the legal battlefield for environmental protection. It is reassuring to see laws like these being enforced with two recognizably large companies like Safeway and Wal-Mart.
At the same time though, it does raise questions as to the efficacy of measures like these. To what degree are these deterrents as opposed to minor fines? Are corporations like Wal-Mart and Safeway concerned with the punishments they will face for infractions or simply willing to face those costs when they are caught? I’m not so idealistic as to think we can ever have one of these nationwide chains give a damn about our environment or be genuinely preoccupied with their impact on local ecosystems or even the local population. But shouldn’t they give a damn about their own profits? Both corporations, up to this point, seem content to cut corners and suffer the consequences. Obviously only the coming months will tell whether or not these two companies will take genuine steps to prevent negative environmental impacts, but if history is any indicator we may need to reevaluate how we approach violations of these laws. How comfortable should we be with these laws posing such a small threat to large polluters? What measures would make polluting carelessly as toxic for corporations as it is for the environment? These are the kind of questions which it seems we may soon face. Let’s hope we’re up to answering them.