A western Iowa man with a history of environmental violations is scheduled to stand trial next week on charges that he deliberately set fire to thousands of railroad ties on his property in open defiance of state regulators.
The case illustrates how an accused environmental scofflaw can, according to the state, openly and repeatedly disregard regulations on both the storage and the disposal of solid waste in Iowa.
It involves 71-year-old John Goldsmith, who lives in Sergeant Bluff on a five-acre parcel of land about a mile and a half from the center of the Woodbury County town.
According to the state, Goldsmith began acquiring and storing used railroad ties on his land in 2011, if not earlier. He eventually accumulated close to 30,000 ties, allegedly in violation of regulations that restrict the dumping or depositing solid waste.
Court records indicate that in November 2017, Sergeant Bluff firefighters were called to the Goldsmith property and battled a blaze there that contained railroad ties and appliances. Sergeant Bluff Fire Chief Anthony Gaul reported the incident to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
DNR Specialist Tom Roos visited Goldsmith’s property a few weeks later and reported seeing a burn pile containing household garbage, wood, mattress springs, and other miscellaneous items. Roos spoke to Goldsmith, who allegedly indicated he knew the burn was illegal. Burning creosote-coated wood and some other wastes can release toxic chemicals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.
On Aug. 7, 2018, Goldsmith allegedly contacted Roos to let him know he intended to burn 30,000 railroad ties on his property, and that he would be barricading the entrance to his property to prevent any access by the fire department or DNR. He also threatened to release three pit bulls on anyone who attempted to enter his property to put out the fire, according to the state.
Roos reportedly told Goldsmith the burning would be illegal. Goldsmith allegedly replied that he was going to proceed anyway, in part because it would cost him at least $400,000 to properly dispose of the ties in a landfill.
A history of violations
John Goldsmith of Sergeant Bluff has a long history of alleged environmental violations that predate the 2018 fire:
- In June 2000, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cited Goldsmith for emissions of 40% opacity coming from a homemade incinerator.
- In September 2001, the DNR cited him for the same violation and ordered him to stop using the incinerator immediately due to constant complaints and reports of fire.
- In February 2002, the DNR fined Goldsmith $6,000 for open burning and the use of an unpermitted incinerator. The penalty was later reduced to $3,000.
- In January 2003, Goldsmith was cited for solid waste and open burning violations.
- In May 2003, Goldsmith was cited for violations related to the operation of a sanitary disposal project without a permit, and for burning landscape waste, and for failing to submit the required notices prior to demolishing a regulated facility.
- In December 2012, Goldsmith was cited for illegal open dumping of miscellaneous solid waste.
Four days later, on Aug. 11, DNR Specialist Amber Wolf received several calls on the agency’s emergency-response hotline about an active burn on Goldsmith’s property. Believing the sheriff’s office was necessary to get access to property, Wolf didn’t go to the site.
The next day, however, she was contacted by Goldsmith’s neighbor, who reported 50-foot flames coming from the fire. Nine hours later, Wolf went to the property and saw a smoldering pile with some areas of open flame.
On Aug. 13, with thousands of ties still burning on the property, Roos called Goldsmith and told him the fire was to be put out immediately. Goldsmith told him he would do so by the end of the day. The next day, on Aug. 14, the two spoke again and Goldsmith allegedly assured Roos the fire was out.
The DNR then took action against Goldsmith and in April 2020, a court ordered him to pay $75,000 in civil penalties related to the burn.
Goldsmith then filed a motion to set aside that judgment, citing a cancer diagnosis that had impaired his ability to respond to the state’s claims. A judge agreed to set the judgment aside and a trial on the matter is now scheduled for March 31 in Woodbury County.
The state is reportedly seeking $90,000 in penalties, arguing that Goldsmith saved tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, by burning the railroad ties instead of disposing of them in a legal manner.
Goldsmith’s lawyer, Anthony Osborn, challenges the state’s claim that the discarded railroad ties meet the definition of “solid waste,” pointing out that his client had originally “planned to sell them someday.” The 30,000 railroad ties, he argues, should be considered lawful “residential waste.” He says after Goldsmith became ill with cancer, he decided to clean up his property by burning some brush, which resulted in the inadvertent burning of the railroad ties.
In a brief filed with the court, Osborn says “the fire should have been exterminated on day two, plain and simple. Indeed, at that time, Mr. Goldsmith contacted the Sergeant Bluff Fire Department and asked for assistance. However, the fire chief said, “F— Goldsmith,” please pardon my language, or words to that effect. Had the fire department responded, the fire would have been extinguished on day 2.”
In a deposition taken four months ago, Goldsmith acknowledged he had investigated the cost of properly disposing of the railroad ties in a landfill and found the cost to be “horrendous.”
Emails Goldsmith sent to the DNR in 2018 indicate he had estimated it would cost him $400,000 to legally dispose of the ties, but at his recent deposition, Goldsmith said he couldn’t recall writing that email, and couldn’t remember anything about the cost estimate, how many railroad ties he had owned, or anything about the fire itself. “I was so confused and still am to this day,” he stated in his deposition.
According to the state’s lawyers, Goldsmith has continued to stage illegal burns on his property, including one in April 2020.