White Island volcano: New Zealand officials lay charges over deadly eruption

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White Island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, is an active volcano off the North Island of New Zealand. It was a popular tourist destination before it erupted in December 2019, killing local guides and visitors.

The country’s occupational health and safety regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand, announced on Monday that it had filed charges against 10 organizations and three people, alleging they failed to do what was reasonably possible to ensure the health and safety of workers and visitors to White Island.

Organizations each face a fine of up to NZ $ 1.5 million ($ 1.1 million), while individuals face a fine of up to NZ $ 300,000 ($ 211,000).

“It was an unexpected event, but that doesn’t mean it was unpredictable and that operators have a duty to protect those in their care,” said Phil Parkes, Managing Director of WorkSafe.

In the weeks leading up to the eruption, New Zealand volcanoes monitoring service GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island to Level 2 out of 5, meaning there was “moderate volcanic unrest at intensified ”.

Forty-seven people were on the island at the time of the explosion, including honeymooners and families, and Parkes said they went there with the hope that systems were in place to ensure that they would return home safely.

“It’s an expectation that is at the heart of our health and safety culture,” he said. “As a nation, we need to look at this tragedy and ask ourselves if we are really doing enough to ensure that our mothers, fathers, children and friends return home healthy and safe at the end of each day.

The charges follow an investigation that Parkes describes as “the largest and most complex” in WorkSafe’s history. WorkSafe said it had not investigated the rescue and recovery of the victims, meaning none of the charges involved post-eruption efforts.

WorkSafe is not naming the accused parties, as they may request that their names be removed when the case has its first hearing in December.

But some parties have confirmed they are involved. GNS Science – a Crown research agency that monitors volcanic activity – said in a statement it was facing charges. “We stand behind our people and our science – which we will continue to provide for the benefit of New Zealand,” GNS said.

The National Emergency Management Agency – a government entity that deals with the country’s civil defense – has also confirmed that it faces charges.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealanders think of the families of those who have suffered loss or injury.

“There’s no easy process from here, but it’s WorkSafe’s job to make sure that if there are any questions that need to be answered, they play a role and lead the charge on them, ”she said.

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