Big fines for firms involved in Whakaari disaster

'Each defendant used an active volcano to make money,' court says, citing health and safety failures

Big fines for firms involved in Whakaari disaster

Five companies on Friday were ordered to pay hefty fines for their involvement in the Whakaari/White Island eruption in 2019.

The District Court at Auckland handed the fines to the Whakaari Management Ltd, White Island Tours Ltd, Volcanic Air Safaris Ltd, Aerius Ltd, and Kahu (NZ) Ltd for their role in the disaster that killed 22 people and injured 25 others.

"Each defendant used an active volcano to make money," the court decision read. "Throughout, each defendant knew Whakaari was active, knew it had an eruptive history, and appreciated that risk to tourists and employees needed to be managed."

The court acknowledged that each defendant took some steps to manage risk, but it noted that none of them had any volcanology expertise.

"They had to get risk assessments done by the appropriately qualified people. If necessary, they needed to get advice on understanding their own obligations in relation to that risk," the court said.

"That failure compromised everything else they did. That failure exposed others to the risk of serious injury and death."

Fines ordered under Health and Safety at Work Act

The Whakaari Management Ltd received the highest fine of $1,045,000 for breaching one charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. It was also ordered to pay reparation of $4,880,000.

"WML failed to ensure adequate risk assessments of conducting tours had been undertaken, either prior to entering into licence agreements as well as throughout the charge period," the court said.

"It failed to obtain the necessary advice both in relation to volcanic risk and in relation to its own obligations arising from that risk."

White Island Tours was also fined $517,000 and was ordered to pay the highest reparation of $5,000,000. Volcanic Air Safaries Ltd was fined $506,000 and ordered to pay reparation worth $330,000.

Aerius Ltd was fined $290,000, while Kahu (NZ) Lts was fined $196,000. Both companies did not get orders for reparation.

The companies previously pleaded guilty for health and safety failings following the disaster.

The Crown-owned Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Limited was also fined $54,000 after pleading guilty under the Health and Safety Work Act 2015.

According to the court, the institute was "acutely aware" of the risks posed by Whakaari but did not have a process to formally share them to the helicopter pilots that they contract to bring them to the island for field work.

‘Catastrophic example of what can go wrong’

WorkSafe NZ said the Whakaari disaster is a "catastrophic example of what can go wrong" when employers don't to everything they can to keep people safe.

"The work activity on the day of the eruption put people's lives at risk. People put their faith in the businesses involved in these trips. But they were not properly informed about the risks, and they were not kept safe," said WorkSafe NZ chief executive Steve Haszard in a statement.

"Whakaari was one of the worst natural disasters in Aotearoa, and the scale of WorkSafe New Zealand's response is unprecedented. WorkSafe had a duty to investigate this tragedy, and we have a duty to hold businesses to account."

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