Grape marc prosecutions delayed again

Leachate run-off and ponding at grape marc dump sites can have adverse effects on the environment. (File photo)
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Leachate run-off and ponding at grape marc dump sites can have adverse effects on the environment. (File photo)

Five wine companies or individuals being prosecuted for the discharge of grape marc have had their first appearance in court delayed for the fourth time.

The Marlborough District Council has pressed charges in relation to the discharge of grape marc and grape marc leachate, made up of the skins, stems and pulp left over after grapes are crushed to make wine, onto land or water.

Peter Yealands, Babich Wines, Growco Limited, John Sowman and Michael Gifford were first supposed to appear in the Blenheim District Court in December.

But their appearance has been adjourned every month since, and was adjourned again last Tuesday to April 26.

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The delays come in the wake of a report from the Environmental Defence Society pointing to systemic weak enforcement of environmental law by local government, national government departments and environmental agencies.

Council chief executive Mark Wheeler said it was the first time the council had prosecuted an individual or company over the storage or discharge of grape marc.

Leachate from the winemaking byproduct could have significant adverse effects on land or water if it was not stored appropriately.

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​Babich Wines and Sowman's lawyer Jonathan Eaton QC said he had asked for the adjournments because he was waiting for a report on the soil quality at the site of the alleged discharge.

"An expert has been carrying out tests, and looking at the scene for possible causes. The Marlborough District Council have looked at it, so it's appropriate we have someone else look at it too."

Possible causes could include effects from the November 14 earthquake, Eaton said.

However, even if Eaton or other lawyers could prove any contamination was accidental, it would only be a mitigating factor for sentencing purposes, he said.

"The judge might be more sympathetic if it can be shown contamination was unintentional."

Yealands and GrowCo's lawyer James Rapley said his case had been adjourned because of the "normal work people do" in preparation for a court appearance.

He would not go into detail but said he was reviewing documents related to the charge.

Gifford's lawyer Hans van der Wal said he asked for an adjournment as he preferred an Environment judge to preside at his client's first appearance.

The Ministry of Justice confirmed a district court judge was able to preside over first appearances, but applications, convictions and sentencings should be handled by an Environment judge.

There were nine Environment judges, but none were based in Marlborough.

Van der Wal was not sure if a plea would be made at Gifford's first appearance, he said.

Resource Management Act specialist Chris Thomsen said there was a variety of reasons the court would grant adjournments and it was common at the early stages of a prosecution to allow the defence time to prepare its case.

The Environmental Defence Society report, released in February, said councils were the only agencies that actively monitored and enforced compliance, but they were chronically under-resourced, reluctant to appear anti-business, or considered prosecution a last resort.

A council's role as promoter of economic development created an inherent conflict, it said.

The report recommended sweeping changes to the way councils and other agencies monitored and enforced environmental law under the Resource Management Act.

The society's chief executive Gary Taylor said the grape marc prosecutions showed the council was taking an equitable approach by not just targeting dairy farmers.

Bringing prosecutions under environmental legislation, including the Resource Management Act, was challenging, Taylor said.

"For many offences councils will pull the plug, because they can't justify the resources and expenditure on low-order offending so a lot of offenders escape the net.

"If we're going to have environmental laws they have to be enforced otherwise they lack potency - people will ignore them and the environment will suffer."

Taylor said that was why Dr Marie Brown, in her research paper 'Last Line of Defence' advocated for other infringement penalties, such as instant fines.

 - The Marlborough Express

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