Sydney, Australia, Nov 30 (efe-epa).- Charges have been laid against 13 parties in relation to the eruption of Whakaari/White Island that claimed 22 lives, the country’s workplace health and safety regulator announced on Monday.
Forty-seven people were on the volcanic island, about 50 kilometers off the central-east coast of the North Island, when it erupted on Dec. 9 last year.
“Today my team has filed charges (…) against 10 organizations and three individuals under the Health and Safety at Work Act,” WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said in a press conference.
The 10 organizations “are each charged that they failed to do what was reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of workers, and in this case, visitors,” Parkes said, adding they each face a maximum fine of NZ$1.5 million ($1 million).
Three individuals “each face a single charge that as officers of the company, they failed to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the organization was meeting its health and safety obligations,” he said, with each facing a maximum fine of NZ$300,000.
The 10 parties were not identified as under New Zealand law, they have the right to seek name suppression in their first court appearance.
However, both the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and GNS Science waived that right Monday as they both confirmed they are two of the parties facing charges.
NEMA, the country’s civil defense agency, said it “will not comment further until the process has run its course.”
GNS Science, responsible for monitoring volcanic activity on the island, said it was advised Monday that it faced charges, but it had “not yet been advised of the nature of those charges. We will take some time to consider our next steps given the broader implications.”
It added that it stood by its people and science, and will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities.
In a post-Cabinet-meeting press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emphasized the “independent decision” of WorkSafe and said “we need to leave it at that. We need this to be an independent process people can have trust, confidence and faith in.”
“I’m very aware that are we not only coming up to the anniversary of this horrific tragedy, we are also coming up against the deadline for which charges, if they were going to be laid, would need to be laid,” Ardern said.
“I know at this time all of New Zealanders’ thoughts are with the families of those who experienced loss or injury,” she added.
When announcing WorkSafe’s decision, Parkes said the “deeply tragic event was unexpected, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable.”
“The victims, both workers and visitors alike, 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,” he said. “After the largest and most complex investigation WorkSafe has ever undertaken, we have concluded that 13 parties did not meet their obligations and should face charges in court.”
The investigation did not include the rescue and recovery of victims after the eruption, so no enforcement action was taken on these matters, and they would be subject to other proceedings.
The report will not be released as it is now central to legal proceedings. The first hearing will take place on Dec. 15 in Auckland District Court.
The 321-meter-high stratovolcano, 70 percent of which is below sea level, is one of New Zealand’s most active, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2018 it was visited by more than 17,500 people.
Located at the southeastern end of the Ring of Fire, Whakaari also erupted in 2016 but did not cause any fatalities.
The previous deadliest incident at the site occurred in 1914 when 10 miners died as a result of a landslide caused by the collapse of part of the volcano’s crater. EFE-EPA