Overlooked Environmental Issues at Shopping Centers


As the property manager of a strip mall or shopping plaza, you might not think you have much to worry about when it comes to environmental, health and safety issues. After all, you’re not in charge of a manufacturing facility, storing and using large amounts of hazardous materials.

But, in reality, you can have a sizeable number of environmental issues depending on the types of businesses you have as tenants. Many of the issues go unnoticed but could actually cause you to run afoul of regulators because you don’t have the proper permits or there is the potential for environmental impact and exposure. Usually, these issues are pretty small-scale and can be addressed quite easily.

However, some issues can be very significant, like the recent environmental exposure issue at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Massachusetts, where exposure to a cleaning chemical resulted in the death of an employee and the hospitalization of ten other people (two customers and eight employees). This tragic accident was reportedly caused by exposure to a common cleaning agent, sodium hypochlorite (a disinfectant found in many cleaning solutions) that was reportedly mixed with another cleaning agent – resulting in toxic fumes.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards require employees to be trained in which chemicals they work with and how to use them safely. The agency has been notified about the incident.

The idea is to identify the environmental issues you have right now, as well as potential ones, to not just stay in step with regulations, but to also make your entire property, and all of your tenants, safer and more sustainable.

Here are some of the most common (and often overlooked) issues.

Day Care Centers

Having a childcare or day care center in your shopping plaza can result in a significant number of potential exposures because of the safety requirements for having young children onsite. As you can imagine, there are all sorts of regulations that govern what goes in these spaces. But the surrounding area is also subject to special rules.

Make sure your day care center is not located near any tenant that may utilize flammable and hazardous materials, such as a dry cleaner. You should also make sure you know the history of the rental space where you may be locating a day care center. You want to make sure none of the previous tenants that had occupied that space used hazardous materials, which may result in potential exposure issues.

Dry Cleaners

The dry cleaning process uses several types of chemical solvents, which can result in some significant environmental issues if ever released to the environment. As a result of this, more and more dry cleaners are switching to “safer” cleaning solvents. However, there is still a significant environmental risk.

It’s no wonder dry cleaning chemicals are regulated by the USEPA, DOT, OSHA, and state and local regulators.

Releases of some of these cleaning solvents can result in significant impact to soil, groundwater and indoor air. To prevent accidental releases requires specialized usage, storage, recycling, and disposal practices for these hazardous materials. As a result, make sure any dry cleaners in your rental space have well-established material handling, spill prevention, and release response plans in place, and all of their employees are properly trained.

Big Box and Home Improvement Stores

You don’t see it as much anymore, but one thing big box and home improvement stores need to watch out for are the products they store or display outside, uncovered and exposed to the elements. For example, stormwater run-off can be a serious issue from pallet loads of fertilizer stored outside. When it rains and if any of the bags of fertilizer are ripped open, the rainwater can come in contact with the fertilizer and may wash it into the nearest storm drain. This can result in some significant environmental impacts, especially to sensitive areas like rivers, streams and wetlands. Make sure exterior stored materials are protected from the elements.

Although by regulation your tenants may not require a state-issued stormwater permit, don’t think you are in the clear when it comes to stormwater issues. Don’t forget about your local regulators.

If you store containers outside, like dumpsters or roll-off boxes, they are exposed to the elements, and may be a source of contamination due to stormwater coming in contact with materials in the dumpsters and the resultant runoff. As a result, many local regulators have implemented exterior storage requirements to safeguard against stormwater pollution for facilities that are not required to have a stormwater permit.

Many local regulations require all dumpsters and roll-offs to be covered to prevent stormwater contamination issues. Make sure you review your local regulations as it pertains to exterior storage requirements.

If these tenants have any hazardous materials at their facility and those materials are over a certain threshold, they may need to report those materials to local and state officials via the Community Right-to-Know Act. And before you say, “We don’t have hazardous material,” you probably do.

For example, they may have battery-operated forklifts that are used to bring in deliveries. These stores may have to report the lead and acid content of the batteries to state and local officials if their contents are over certain thresholds, so the emergency responders know what they’re dealing with if there is ever an incident at the store. You also need safety data sheets, as well as proper training for the forklift operators. This is one of the biggest violations we see right now.

Back-Up Generators

When the power goes out, due to a weather event, for example, restaurants and grocery stores often turn to back-up generators to keep their freezers going so they don’t lose thousands of dollars’ worth of food.

Depending on its location, size and fuel source, your back-up generator may require an air permit. If the back-up fuel for the generator is fuel oil, which is usually stored within or near the generator in an aboveground tank, this may also trigger the need for a spill management plan, a.k.a. Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) Plan, as well as related training for anyone working with the generator. If you have the capacity to store 1,320 gallons or more of oil above ground, you may need to have an SPCC Plan. And these regulations apply to electrical transformers on your property – even if they are owned by the public utility! Surprisingly, some of these ground-level transformers can contain hundreds of gallons of transformer oil, which are subject to these regulations. 

But even if you don’t meet that threshold, it is recommended that you have an SPCC Plan in place because it reduces the chance of exposures significantly.

The USEPA website has the information you need to implement one of these plans cheaply and easily.


Do you have any restaurants onsite…even a simple breakfast café or pizza place? If any of them use cooking oil and grease, then each eatery should have its own dedicated system for managing used cooking oil. You can’t just pour it down the drain. Regulators, especially sewer authorities, sure don’t like it because this oil and grease can congeal and clog up pipes and sewer lines.

First, any wastewater that may contain cooking oil and grease should pass through a grease trap so that none of the oil and grease gets discharged to the local sewer system. Many local sewer authorities are implementing new rules and regulations concerning the discharges of fats, oils and greases (FOG) to their sewer systems, and in some cases the sewer authorities are requiring permits if you have the potential to discharge FOG. At a minimum, you should make sure your tenants have a grease trap installed in the sewer line wherever they generate FOG, and make sure your tenants properly maintain the grease trap by cleaning it out on a routine basis. And don’t forget to make sure they document every time they pump out their grease trap because your local sewer authority will request that type of documentation from them.

If any of your tenants store oil and grease at their location, it is usually located in the back of the building by their rear entrance. Make sure these storage areas are neat and clean, well-organized with signage, protected from weather events, and all of the containers are properly labelled. If this is not followed, you may not be in compliance with local and/or state regulations regarding stormwater exposures and waste storage/management.

Remember, we mentioned that if you have the capacity to store 1,320 gallons or more of oil aboveground at your facility, you may need an SPCC Plan. This federal requirement applies to oil of any kind, not just petroleum-based oil. It also applies to your cooking oils. As a result, we often find many shopping centers require SPCC Plans due to the amount of aboveground oil storage capacity they have at their properties. So, check to see if you meet the requirements for needing an SPCC Plan.

Cleaning Supplies

Most, if not all, of your tenants use cleaning supplies at their locations. Some of these cleaning materials can become toxic if combined with other materials, resulting in tragic accidents similar to the chemical exposure issue mentioned previously at the Buffalo Wild Wings. 

Some very general rules to follow with common cleaning agents:

  • Never mix bleach and ammonia
  • Never mix bleach and vinegar
  • Never mix hydrogen peroxide and vinegar
  • Never mix drain cleaners

It is important to remember that no matter what your tenant does, all of their employees must be trained in which chemicals they work with and how to use them properly, and what not to do with those chemicals. This training must be formally conducted and documented.

Since many of your tenants probably store these cleaning agents in small storage areas, it is also important that the storage areas for these chemicals be properly managed. Follow these simple rules:

  • Keep your storage areas neat and clean
  • Keep your storage areas well organized – store compatibles with compatibles
  • Keep all containers tightly closed
  • Make sure all containers are properly labelled with their current contents (this is especially important if containers are re-used)
  • Make sure you have safety data sheets for all hazardous materials used at the location


How do you dispose of your spent fluorescent light bulbs? You can’t just throw them in a dumpster. They need to be properly managed and disposed of as a universal waste, which is a hazardous waste.

As a shopping center, you go through a lot of bulbs. Some facilities hire a service to take the bulbs away for recycling, and some facilities use a bulb crusher on their property, which is a small crushing unit that sits on top of a 55-gallon drum. You feed the bulb into the unit, and the resultant crushed material is contained within the drum. Once full, the drum gets disposed of as universal waste. However, if you use a bulb crusher at your facility, you may need an air permit (New Jersey requires one) and you will need to provide your employees that use the unit with personal protective equipment, including respirators. If you provide your employees with respirators, you will also need to provide them with the proper training on the use of the respirators, as well as enrolling them into a medical surveillance program. 

Your Next Steps

You could have ongoing or potential environmental issues right now at your shopping center. Depending on the types of shops, restaurants, and other businesses you have onsite, you could have some serious liabilities on your hands and could be on the hook with regulators. Get ahead of the curve and closely look at your tenants and their operations, using the information above as a guide.

At Envision Environmental, Inc., we’d be happy to help with the process. Please contact me, Mark Roman, at 609-208-1885 or via email at markroman@envisionenvironmental.com.

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