Former Whangārei mayor Stan Semenoff has been found guilty of air pollution in relation to an illegal rubbish fire at one of his business properties in 2020.
Environment Court judge Prudence Steven delivered a reserved verdict in the Whangārei District Court this morning after hearing Northland Regional Council's case against Semenoff in May.
Her full decision will follow.
The judge convicted Semenoff of two charges under 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.
A sentencing date is yet to be scheduled.
The regional council alleged that while Semenoff did not personally light the fire, as managing director of the Stan Semenoff Group he permitted it and was responsible for it.
Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) staff on a job 5km away, noticed black smoke billowing from the direction of Semenoff's large industrial property in South End Ave, Raumanga, on June 3, 2020.
When they arrived at the site they found a heap of materials including plastic, metal cable, iron, PVC piping, metal, plywood, tanalised fence posts and other timbers, burning in a mound covering about 5m x 5m and standing about 2m high.
Rubber tyres were also on fire - the burning of which is a specific breach of National Environment Standards.
A council enforcement officer, Melissa Lakin, who also attended the site, said she spoke with Semenoff there and that he claimed the burning materials were rubbish dumped by others at the site who did not want to pay to have it removed so decided to burn.
But at his hearing, Semenoff claimed he was not responsible for the fire - that although back at work at the time, he was still recovering from a stroke two months earlier and had delegated 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.
Semenoff claimed that as a former deputy chairman of Northland Regional Council, he knew the rules about lighting fires and would not break them.
He did not recall speaking to the council official at the site.
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.
Prosecutor Karenza de Silva told the court Semenoff previously received abatement and infringement notices for burning rubbish at two of his business 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.
In their evidence, Borck and Lang confirmed they took over much of the running of the business during Semenoff's illness. They said they decided to burn the rubbish to make room for machinery being moved from a previous workshop site.
Borck said he removed rubber he had noticed on the fire pile before lighting it.
He believed the fire was permitted as Lang had cleared it with the fire service the week beforehand.
Lang said he thought the pile was purely vegetation and had not checked it.
- Sarah Curtis, Open Justice