Explosion at Del Rey store in 2004 triggered investigation

BY GARY WALKER

Home Depot USA Inc., the nation’s largest home improvement chain and the second-largest retailer, will pay approximately $10 million to settle a civil case for its failure to properly, responsibly and legally handle dangerous chemicals, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo announced Friday, August 17th.

An explosion at the Home Depot store at 12975 Jefferson Blvd. in Del Rey in May 2004 triggered an investigation that ultimately shed light on the company’s policy of storing and transporting hazardous waste and flammable chemicals.

The Del Rey explosion, which occurred in a storeroom, caused a fire and forced the store’s management to evacuate personnel and customers.

Later, a waste hauler contracted by Home Depot was stopped by the California Highway Patrol in Ripon. The hauler was transporting hazardous refuse materials and lacked proper state certification, according to Stanley Williams of the district attorney’s office.

“This settlement demonstrates the importance of prosecutors working together across the state on complex environmental matters to ensure public health and safety,” said Delgadillo.

“This is a civil enforcement of a criminal action,” stated Patricia Bilgin, supervising attorney for the Environmental Justice and Protection Section of Delgadillo’s office.

“The manner in which the chemicals were stored led directly to the explosion and subsequent fire,” said deputy city attorney Elise Gruden.

“There’s always the possibility of mishandling chemicals when they are improperly stored,” said Gruden, who is also with the Environmental Justice Unit.

Williams, assistant head deputy of the district attorney’s Consumer Protection Division, said that after looking at all of the evidence in the case, his department decided against filing a criminal indictment, which is why the city attorney’s office, which handles civil and some criminal matters was involved.

“We made a decision to proceed with the civil case,” he said.

The Environmental Justice and Protection Section of the city attorney’s office works on civil enforcement actions that pertain to disposal of hazardous waste, illegal dumping and asbestos removal.

As part of the agreement, Home Depot will be required to submit annual certification of its hazardous waste management program to state authorities for all of the company’s facilities that contain hazardous waste.

The terms of the settlement will also mandate that the home improvement supplies company contract only with waste haulers that are licensed by the Department of Toxic Substances and use only Department of Transportation-approved containers for off-site disposal.

Home Depot will also be required to maintain accurate records of how it disposes of hazardous wastes and implement a new fire code program at its California locations.

“All of these mandates are contingent upon court approval,” Bilgin said.

“Every business that has chemical exposure has a responsibility to operate in a safe and responsible manner,” said Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council.

“The Home Depot is committed to complying with all environmental laws,” Home Depot senior communications manager Kathryn Gallagher told The Argonaut. “In 2005, the State of California advised us of concerns about our waste handling practices.

“Since then, we have been working with the state officials to address their concerns, and have developed and implemented a best-in-class program for labeling and disposing of the waste generated in our stores.

“We are pleased to be able to bring this matter to closure and we look forward to continuing with our focus on the environment through our numerous sustainability programs.”

While the Del Rey explosion spotlighted that store’s inappropriate handing of its chemicals and toxic refuse, this was apparently not an anomaly. The probe alleged that company’s stores throughout California were engaging in the same tactic regarding storage and handling procedures.

Bilgin declined to say whether there were other waste haulers or companies that were under investigation for similar activities.

Williams also chose not to address whether any other Home Depot stores in California were under investigation.

“We’re looking at the company’s practices in general,” Williams said.

California Attorney General Edmund “Jerry” Brown said that his office is also looking at other large firms besides Home Depot.

“[Home Depot] is not the only company that has problems,” he said.

Redick, who at one time worked with Chem-Care, a waste management and disposal service, believes that there is no excuse for any company to improperly handle and dispose of its hazardous refuse.

“Environmental responsibility belongs to all of us,” he said. “I hope that the terms of the settlement, if agreed to by the court and all parties, can serve as a benchmark in future cases involving hazardous waste and dangerous chemicals.”

The settlement was believed to be the largest against a “big-box retailer” like Home Depot.

“I haven’t seen anything to indicate that there is to be one larger than this one,” said Williams.

In addition to Delgadillo’s office and the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, several county district attorneys were also a part of the investigation and the settlement, as were the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

“It was a cooperative effort with many law enforcement agencies,” said Williams.

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