Carbon farming business fined $40k for ‘careless’ spraying

The fire in the rural area around Livingstone in October 2020 burnt through hundreds of hectares...
The fire in the rural area around Livingstone in October 2020 burnt through hundreds of hectares of forest. PHOTO: STU JACKSON
A carbon farming business has been fined for damaging large swathes of native bush and wetlands in the Waitaki district.

Environment Court Judge Kelvin Reid’s judgement, released to the Otago Daily Times last week, said NZCF (invest 1) Ltd, trading as New Zealand Carbon Farming (NZCF), pleaded guilty to charges related to damaging indigenous vegetation and wetlands from aerial spraying at a property near Livingstone, North Otago.

He fined NZCF $40,000 and ordered it to undergo extensive restoration work.

The charges were laid by the Waitaki District Council and Otago Regional Council.

"I find that some wetland vegetation and indigenous vegetation may well recover, but that regeneration of other plant species may be very difficult.

"Overall, if recovery was to occur, it could take 10 to 20 years to reach a similar, pre-spraying state if the areas are to recover naturally.

"I am dealing here with a number of discrete strips of wetland area which have been extensively sprayed ... resulting in significant damage."

The spraying occurred as part of remediation work after a massive fire in October 2020 burnt through an 8-year-old pine forest on the property.

The fire significantly damaged about 550ha of mainly plantation forest and some indigenous vegetation. After the fire, NZCF decided to replant the property in radiata pine and maintain it as a carbon sink.

The summary of facts said the spraying on March 9, 2021, included aerial herbicide application solely for the purpose of clearing gorse which exhibited extreme regrowth after the fire. The herbicide spraying on April 21, 2021, was directed towards clearing exotic grass and to apply chemicals that would settle into the soil to inhibit regrowth of grasses and weeds.

"Herbicides used on both occasions had adverse effects on indigenous vegetation, including causing modification and/or clearance of indigenous vegetation present on the property in contravention of the Waitaki district plan."

On April 13, 2021, NZCF again prepared geospatial files that identified remaining areas to be sprayed for grass suppression.

"These files excluded some, but not all wetlands in the defined area for spraying. While some wetlands were excluded (and mapped accordingly), the files did not expressly clarify that these areas comprised wetlands."

The regional and district councils submitted about six separate sites of native wetlands were adversely affected by the spraying, totalling more than 16,000sqm.

The district council said NZCF’s actions were "highly careless"; the regional council said the actions were "highly reckless".

The defence counsel for NZCF submitted the conduct was "moderately careless, but not reckless or deliberate in any way".

Judge Reid said he accepted that some wetland and riparian areas were included in the March 9, 2021, spraying operation by accident.

"There were, however, other areas of wetland and riparian errors that were sprayed on ... that did not result from this error."

Judge Reid said for the April 21, 2021, spraying, the focus was again on restoration areas — this time they were excluded from the spraying.

"However, wetlands outside restoration areas were sprayed.

"These failures were in the context of NZCF being well aware of the wetlands, waterways and riparian areas of the property."

The actions were in the "highest levels of carelessness", Judge Reid said.

NZCF’s conduct showed a lack of care and a "serious disregard for its environmental obligations", he said.

NZCF’s defence counsel submitted it had undergone significant restoration work since the spraying occurred, which included native planting.

Judge Reid acknowledged this, saying the replanting was "positive" and "has been and continues to be expensive".

"However, the site has now been compromised", he said.

He set the starting point of the fine at $70,000, and made reductions for remorse, guilty plea and previous good behaviour.