New Zealand volcano owners, tour companies go on trial over 2019 tragedy

 July 11, 2023

New Zealanders were shocked in 2019 when a volcanic eruption on White Island led to the deaths of 22 people, with many of them being tourists.

According to the Association Press, a prosecutor argued this week that the fatal tragedy could have been prevented. 

Staff and visitors "not given the opportunity to make any informed decision"

Kristy McDonald made the claim as part of her opening statement in Auckland District Court on Tuesday, saying an eruption was foreseeable.

McDonald is prosecuting the island's owners,  Andrew, James, and Peter Buttle, along with their company Whakaari Management Ltd. Also on trial are tour operators ID Tours NZ Ltd. and Tauranga Tourism Services Ltd.

She said tourists and staff members "were not given the opportunity to make any informed decision about whether they wanted to take the risk of walking into the crater of an active and unpredictable volcano that had erupted as recently as 2016."

"The business of tourism on Whakaari was a risky business," McDonald pointed out, using the indigenous name for White Island.

"It involved tours to an active volcano, taking people to the heart of the crater in circumstances where no one could predict when an eruption might occur, and if an eruption did occur, those on Whakaari were likely to die or suffer very serious injury," she explained, adding, "And tragically, that risk was realized."

Island owners slammed for not paying for risk assessment

"The Buttles failed to do one of the most fundamental things required of them as officers," McDonald said of the island's owners.

With an annual profit of roughly $1 million New Zealand dollars, the company could have paid for a formal risk assessment by the geology agency GNS Science after the 2016 eruption but chose not to.

"They failed to ensure that their company had and used sufficient resources to understand the risk of its business and to implement controls to manage that risk," she asserted.

The prosecutor acknowledged that warning of the dangers associated with visiting White Island "would obviously not be good for business" but stressed that "profit should never come before safety."

Visitors warned to stay away from Icelandic volcano

New Zealand is not the only country to feature volcano tourism, as on Tuesday Iceland's government warned visitors to stay away from Mt. Fagradalsfjall.

The Daily Mail reported that Fagradalsfjall has been erupting since Monday and the release of toxic gasses poses a safety hazard.

"The police, after counsel from scientists, have decided to restrict access to the eruption site due to enormous and life-threatening toxic gas pollution," a statement from Iceland's Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management was quoted as saying.

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