March 7, 2021

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Deadly White Island Volcano Eruption Leads to Charges

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Almost one year to the day after a deadly volcanic eruption killed 22 people on New Zealand’s White Island, the country’s workplace safety regulator has charged 13 parties for their roles in the disaster.

In a televised address on Monday, Phil Parkes, the chief executive of the regulator, WorkSafe, said that the parties — including organizations, government agencies and three individuals — had fallen short of their obligations and would face charges in court.

“This deeply tragic event was unexpected, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable, and there is a duty on operators to protect those in their care,” Mr. Parkes said. “The victims — both workers and visitors — all had a reasonable expectation that they could go to the island knowing that those organizations involved had done all they were required to do to look after their health and safety.”

The organizations face criminal charges with maximum fines of 1.5 million New Zealand dollars, about $1 million, while the three individuals face charges as officers of a company and maximum fines of about $210,000 for their roles in the disaster. The first hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15.

The charges are unusual: Under the government-run system of no-fault accident compensation, known as the Accident Compensation Corporation scheme, people in New Zealand generally have little legal recourse in the event of an accident caused by negligence, no matter how serious the event.

Though the 13 entities have not been publicly named by WorkSafe, two government agencies, GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency, have confirmed they are among those charged. GNS Science monitors volcanic activity.

The volcano, also known by its Maori name, Whakaari, erupted on Dec. 9 last year. At the time, 47 people, including tour groups and their guides, were on the island, seeking a glimpse of the raw edge of New Zealand’s geological activity. Those caught in the disaster included children and retirees.

In the wake of the catastrophe, some asked why these tourists had been allowed to visit the site of an active volcano. Volcanologists had long warned that White Island might be a disaster waiting to happen, while GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand, had reported increased activity in the weeks leading up to the eruption, raising its warning level to 2 out of a possible 5.

Tours to the remote island have since been suspended, despite calls to resume them under new safety protocols.

At the time of the eruption, tours were run under a deal between the family that owns the island and a few operators, falling under the jurisdiction of so-called adventure activities regulations that require a safety audit for companies that “deliberately expose the participant to a serious risk to his or her health and safety that must be managed by the provider of the activity.”





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