Whangārei's former mayor Stan Semenoff claims he was not responsible for an illegal rubbish fire on one of his business properties.
Northland Regional Council is prosecuting him as managing director of Stan Semenoff Group for alleged resource management offences arising from the June 3, 2020, fire at a large industrial property on South End Ave, Raumanga.
The council says the fire polluted the air.
But Semenoff claims that as a former deputy chair of Northland Regional Council he knows the rules about lighting fires and would not break them.
Two months before the fire he had a stroke and although he was back at work, he was still struggling with medical issues and delegated most of his business responsibilities to his accountant Carlo Lang and a senior workshop manager Brett Borck.
It was Borck who lit the fire, Semenoff said. Had he known about it, he would not have allowed it.
"Had I not had my stroke, had I been on top of my game, that fire would not have been lit."
Two senior fire and emergency (FENZ) officers and a Northland Regional Council (NRC) enforcement officer who went to the fire described it as a large mound covering an area of about 5m by 5m and standing about 2m high.
It included plastic, metal cable, rubber tyres, iron, PVC Piping metal, and timber – including plywood and tanalized fence posts.
One of the officers Rhys Wirihana said he noticed black billowing smoke from about 5km away.
He and his crew doused the fire with thousands of litres of water but it was expected to continue burning for at least another day.
Borck was told by FENZ to get a digger to flatten the burning pile out and to smother it with dirt. The pile was still standing the next day but was covered with dirt and emitting white smoke and steam.
Semenoff is charged with two breaches of the Resource Management Act – one by discharging contaminants through the outdoor burning of waste, the other by burning tyres.
Each carries a penalty of up to two years in jail or a $300,000 fine.
Environment Court Judge Prudence Steven heard the case in Whangārei on Tuesday.
The NRC enforcement officer Melissa Lakin said Semenoff commented on the day that the rubbish was not his but dumped by others and that he did not want to pay for its removal so decided to burn it.
Giving evidence in his defence, Semenoff said due to his illness at the time he did not recall making the comments Lakin claimed but doubted saying them.
Wirihana described him as having been "nonchalant". If that was so, it was also due to the ongoing effects of his stroke, which made it difficult for him to communicate, Semenoff said.
He was not aware of any plan to burn rubbish at the site. Fly-tipping was a problem there but not something causing him any immediate concern.
Tyres from his businesses were routinely taken to the local waste management plant and processes were also in place for all other waste. Burning rubbish was not part of his business practice.
He disputed the fire was overly big or pollutive.
He thought the advice to flatten it with a digger was dangerous as the machine's hydraulic hoses could have melted and leaked oil, which would have caused an explosion.
Instead, Borck used a front end loader to cover the pile with dirt.
Prosecutor Karenza de Silva told the court Semenoff previously received abatement and infringement notices for burning rubbish at two of his sites in 2008, 2009, and 2014.
She put it to Semenoff that after those prosecutions - given he had a purported 200 employees - he should have made sure all staff were aware burning rubbish was not permitted.
Semenoff confirmed he had no formal documentation or training for staff on the subject but said staff all knew how to access Regional Council rules if required.
Borck and Lang also gave evidence for the defence, confirming they took over much of the running of the business during Semenoff's illness. They decided to burn the rubbish to make room for machinery being moved from a previous workshop site.
Borck said he removed rubber he noticed on the fire pile before lighting it.
He believed the fire was permitted as Lang cleared it with the Fire Service the week beforehand.
Lang said he thought the pile was purely vegetation and had not checked it.
When he phoned the fire service he was only asked two questions – whether the site was bigger than a hectare and if the waste was subdivision waste. Because he was able to answer yes to both, the fire was permitted.
He agreed with Semenoff it was unrealistic to expect a business such as the Semenoff Group to have formal procedures and manuals about burning rubbish. Most employees would never be involved in that task.
The case continues.