New Zealand Defense Force / via Getty Images
The New Zealand government has filed charges of the volcanic eruption that killed 22 people on White Island last year, saying operators who brought tourists to see the country’s most active volcano did not follow health and safety rules.
Officials say 47 people were on the island when the volcano erupted in the early afternoon of Dec. 9, sending a cloud of ash, toxic gas and rocks about 12,000 feet into the sky. Rescue crews rushed to find survivors, and rescue teams spent approx. two weeks on finding victims.
The outbreak was unexpected, but according to WorkSafe New Zealand, the country’s workplace safety agency, it was not unpredictable.
“Those who went to the island did so with a reasonable expectation that appropriate systems were in place to ensure they got the home healthy and safe,” WorkSafe CEO Phil Parkes said in a statement issued Monday.
The eruption was a “hydrothermal explosion,” the U.S. Geological Survey determined.
“The volcano had shown signs of unrest for several weeks before the explosion on December 9, 2019,” the USGS said. “In October, seismic tremors and sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas emission rates were at their highest levels since 2016, indicating an increased likelihood of an outbreak. “
Everyone who was on White Island that day suffered “serious injuries and trauma,” WorkSafe said. Survivors endured major burns in their skin and lungs.
WorkSafe indicted 13 parties in Auckland District Court – 10 organizations and three people. Nine of the groups are accused of not ensuring the health and safety of workers and others, while the other is accused of lack of control over a workplace. Each of these charges carries a maximum fine of more than $ 1 million.
The three individuals are subject to minor fines levied under a provision requiring people “with significant influence over a business to exercise due diligence” in order to meet health and safety obligations.
WorkSafe has not named any of the parties and notes that they have the right to request that their names be suppressed at their first court.
White Island, also known by its Maori name, Whakaari, is the summit of a huge submarine volcano that rises more than 1,000 feet out of the water of the bay. The island is located approx. 30 miles off the north-northeast coast of New Zealand.
Those on the island at the time of the eruption included nine Americans and 24 Australians. Other visitors’ home countries included China, Malaysia, Germany, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
Occupational safety charges are not related to the response that followed the outbreak, such as rescue and recovery operations. WorkSafe says it did not investigate that part of the incident.
“These actions may be subject to other procedures, such as a coronal investigation,” the agency said.