The science group responsible for alerting Kiwis to volcanic activity at Whakaari/White Island says its stands by its people and its science.
It came as GNS Science today confirmed it was one of two Government agencies – the other being the National Emergency Management Agency – charged over Whakaari’s eruption last year that killed 22 people.
Eight private organisations and three individuals also face charges brought by WorkSafe after its close to year-long investigation.
GNS said it had not yet been told exactly what it was charged with, but backed the work it did.
“We stand by our people and our science – which we will continue to deliver for the benefit of New Zealand,” the agency said.
“We will continue to co-operate fully with the authorities, while carrying on with the crucial role GNS Science has in monitoring and sharing scientific information about Aotearoa New Zealand’s geohazards, including volcanoes.”
It said it would be unable to comment further due to the matter now being subject to legal proceedings, but its thoughts were with those seriously injured in the blast and the families of those who lost their lives.
University of Auckland professor of volcanology Shane Cronin hoped tough questions would lead to better safety practices and answers for those affected by the tragedy.
“Looking back, there are questions as to whether the generic Volcanic Alert Level System was appropriate for a volcano such as Whakaari, which has much more rapid changes in eruption state than most of our other volcanoes and produces explosions with very little warning,” he said.
However, he also hoped investigations into the tragedy kept in mind that volcanoes were by their nature “dangerous and unpredictable phenomena”.
“Even with all the knowledge in the world, we as scientists will never truly be able to recognise every sign of impending eruption, nor forecast every event,” Cronin said.
“New Zealand volcano agencies, especially GNS Science and Geonet have always strived to provide as much information as they can, as quickly as they can, and as simply as they can to the public.”
He hoped that “whatever the outcome of the charges”, New Zealand had better communication about the science behind the nation’s volcanoes.
‘The worst possible outcome, would be if volcano science agencies, such as GNS Science, or individual volcano scientists become too timid to make public statements on volcanic activity for fear of being wrong, or of being prosecuted,” he said.
WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said Whakaari’s eruption was “unexpected” but not “unforeseeable”.
The 10 charged organisations would now face charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The three directors or individuals would face charges relating to exercising due diligence to ensure the company met its health and safety obligations. These hold maximum fines of $1.5 million and $300,000 respectively.
The court date is scheduled for December 15 at the Auckland District Court.
Parkes said he could not give any specifics about the charges because they are now before the court.
WorkSafe confirmed the day after the tragedy that it had launched its own investigation.
In a statement at the time, the department said: “WorkSafe New Zealand has opened a health and safety investigation into the harm and loss of life caused by the eruption.”
WorkSafe had general oversight of tourism operations on the volcanic island off the Bay of Plenty coastline.
Under regulations introduced in 2016, it required companies such as White Island Tours and the myriad of helicopter companies that offered tours to the island to undergo safety audits.
But it could not dictate access to the island as it was owned privately.
Numerous lawyers in Australia and the US have been hired by Whakaari/White Island survivors and family and friends of some of the people who died.
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