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Home Depot fined $1.6M for selling banned super-pollutant in Washington

caption: A refrigerant recovery machine vacuums climate superpollutant R134a from the air-conditioning system of a Honda in New York state in June 2024.
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A refrigerant recovery machine vacuums climate superpollutant R134a from the air-conditioning system of a Honda in New York state in June 2024.
Courtesy Michael Helme/ New Yorkers for Cool Refrigerant Management

Washington state has fined The Home Depot $1.6 million for selling canisters of a banned substance that harms the climate.

The big-box retailer sold a refrigerant for do-it-yourself car air-conditioner repairs for two years after the state had prohibited sales of the super-pollutant in 2021, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

The refrigerant, a gas called R-134a or Freon 134a, traps heat in the atmosphere at 1,430 times the rate of carbon dioxide.

It’s part of a family of heat-trapping chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons that are being largely phased out worldwide due to their steep climate impacts.

For nearly 20 years, R-134a was the primary refrigerant used in American automobiles and is today the most common hydrofluorocarbon in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Washington Department of Ecology says Home Depot sold roughly half a ton of the do-it-yourself coolant after the state banned its sale in 2021.

If all that R-134a leaked out, it would damage the climate as much as burning 70,000 gallons of gasoline.

“Leading states like Washington, New York, and California have rulemakings in place to ensure that we are not causing global warming when trying to cool ourselves,” said Avipsa Mahapatra with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that investigates environmental crimes, including sales of banned substances.

“Robust enforcement is as important as setting regulations,” Mahapatra said.

Home Depot officials did not respond to KUOW’s interview requests.

Home Depot’s website says the company tries to introduce customers to greener products to reduce their environmental impact. A webpage dedicated to the retailer’s efforts to protect the climate says Home Depot is committed to reducing its climate impact —and that of the products it sells — 42% by 2030.

Ecology department spokesperson Caroline Halter said Home Depot has stopped offering the R-134a canisters in Washington but is still selling them online and in stores in other states.

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U.S. auto manufacturers began transitioning away from R-134a in 2012.

The Environmental Protection Agency banned the substance in new cars starting with model year 2021. New cars today largely use a less-harmful but more-expensive fluorinated substance called R-1234yf. That coolant heats the planet 360 times less than its predecessor.

Older cars are still allowed to use R-134a in their air-conditioners. Some repair shops have specialized equipment to vacuum up coolant without leaking any to the atmosphere. The highly automated process takes about an hour, according to environmental activist Michael Helme with New Yorkers for Cool Refrigerant Management.

Without such equipment, tinkering with air conditioners can easily cause their coolant gases to leak.

“When someone uses a can of DIY refrigerant like they were selling at Home Depot, there's almost no way they can recover the old refrigerant, check for leaks, or be sure they are putting the proper amount of new refrigerant into their system,” Helme said by email.

“Each time someone uses a DIY can of R-134a for their own car, they are essentially vandalizing our climate system,” Helme said.

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“Washington had good reasons for making that law and Home Depot should have been following it,” Helme said.

Most businesses quickly stopped selling the banned product after initial outreach efforts by the Department of Ecology in 2021, according to an agency press release.

Ecology officials made “numerous attempts” between 2021 and 2023 to get Home Depot to follow the law.

In 2023, after the company disclosed how much R-134a it had sold, Ecology lowered its fine from the maximum $10 million.

Home Depot has 30 days to appeal the fine.

The Atlanta-based company did $152.7 billion in sales in 2023 and earned a profit of $15.1 billion, according to its annual report.

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