White Island Volcano: New Zealand officials have been charged with a fatal eruption


White Island, also known as Maori Whakaari, is an active volcano off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It was a popular tourist destination before it broke out in December 2019 and killed local tour guides and visitors.

The country’s occupational health and safety regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand, on Monday said it had indicted 10 organizations and three individuals, claiming they had not made the health and safety of workers and visitors to the White Island reasonably feasible.

Organizations can each be fined up to 1.5 million New Zealand dollars ($ 1.1 million), while individuals can be fined up to 300,000 New Zealand dollars ($ 211,000).

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

In the weeks leading up to the eruption, New Zealand’s volcanic monitoring service, GeoNet, has raised the alert level on White Island from 5 to 2, meaning “moderate or increased volcanic disturbances.”
Forty-seven people were on the island at the time of the explosion, including honeymooners and families, Parkes said, with the expectation that systems were in place to ensure they could return home safely.

“This expectation is at the heart of our health and safety culture,” he said. “As a nation, we need to look at this tragedy and ask if we are really doing enough to ensure that our mothers, fathers, children and friends can come home to us healthily and safely at the end of every day.”

The allegations follow an investigation that Parkes calls the “most extensive and complex” in WorkSafe’s history. WorkSafe said it did not investigate the rescue and recovery of the victims, meaning none of the charges were related to the post-eruption effort.

WorkSafe will not name the accused parties as they may seek to suppress the name when the first court hearing of the case is in December.

But some parties have confirmed that they are participating. GNS Science, the crown research organization that monitors volcanic activity, said in a statement that it faces charges. “We stand for our people and our science – which we will continue to provide for the benefit of NZ,” GNS said.

The National Disaster Management Agency – a government body that manages the country’s civil protection – has also confirmed that it is being charged.
According to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the thoughts of New Zealanders relate to the families of those who have suffered loss or injury.

“There’s no easy process from here, but it’s up to WorkSafe to ensure that when questions need to be answered, they play a role and guide them,” he said.