Posted on March 25, 2020 by Sustainable Food News

UNFI settles lawsuit over water pollution discharges

NGO says natural, organic broadliner had allegedly failed to sample, report DC's stormwater discharges into Columbia River and tributaries

United Natural Foods Inc., North America’s largest wholesaler of natural and organic foods, has settled a lawsuit over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and polluting the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River, Ore.-based nonprofit with over 16,000 members “many of whom reside in the vicinity of waters affected by UNFI’s discharges of pollutants,” had filed its lawsuit in Washington Western District Court on Dec. 24 (Case #: 3:19-cv-06234).

Columbia Riverkeeper said in its legal complaint that it had “serious concerns” about the impacts of operations and industrial stormwater discharges on the Columbia River and its tributaries from UNFI’s distribution center in Ridgefield, Wash.

Providence, R.I.-based United Natural Foods, Inc. (NYSE: UNFI) had announced about a year ago that it was expanding the DC from its original 250,000-square-foot footprint to nearly 800,000 square feet as part of a consolidation spurred by its $2.3 billion acquisition of major food wholesaler SuperValu in October 2018.

Stormwater runoff is “one of the great challenges of water pollution control” and “is a principal contributor to water quality impairment of waterbodies nationwide,” according to the complaint. “When rain sends runoff across streets, construction projects, and industrial facilities, the water picks up contaminants that are drained into waterways such as the Columbia River and its tributaries.”

The Ridgefield facility discharges stormwater to a tributary which discharges to Gee Creek. The stormwater “contains elevated levels of turbidity, copper, and zinc,” the complaint alleges, adding that the discharges have occurred “each and every day” since UNFI obtained an Industrial Stormwater General Permit (ISGP) from the state of Washington in June 2016.

“Discharges from UNFI’s [Ridgefield] facility contribute to the polluted conditions of the waters of the United States, including the Columbia River and its tributaries including Gee Creek and Lake River. Discharges from UNFI’s facility contribute to the ecological impacts that result from the polluted condition of these waters and to Columbia Riverkeeper’s and its members’ injuries resulting therefrom,” the compliant alleged.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, known as a consent decree, UNFI has agreed to pay $90,000 to the Watershed Alliance of Southwest Washington for a project or projects that benefit the water quality of Gee Creek and/or Lake River.

UNFI has also agreed to pay Columbia Riverkeeper nearly $17,000 in attorney fees and costs.

Columbia Riverkeeper had requested in its complaint that the court order UNFI to pay civil penalties of $53,484 per day of violation for each violation, which the complaint numbered in the dozens.

Columbia Riverkeeper also sought litigation expenses and an order keeping UNFI from operating the Ridgefield facility “in a manner that results in further violations of the General Permit.” Columbia Riverkeeper also wants the court to order UNFI to allow it to participate in the development and implementation of its stormwater pollution prevention plan, among other provisions.

UNFI has also agreed that for a period of one year it will provide Columbia Riverkeeper with quarterly discharge monitoring reports, quarterly sample lab reports, and inspection reports, among other relevant documents.

Judge Robert Bryan still needs to sign off on the consent decree for it to become effective. If it does, all claims against UNFI in the legal matter are released and dismissed with prejudice.

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