Whakaari/White Island eruption: Tour company cannot afford fines, likely to close

11:01 am on 4 March 2024
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Twenty-two people died when Whakaari/White Island erupted in December 2019. Photo: Supplied/ University of Canterbury

White Island Tours faces potential closure after being fined over half a million dollars for its role in the Whakaari/White Island disaster.

Twenty-two people died and 25 others were injured when the island - a popular tourist site - erupted in 2019.

The company, which took visitors to the island via boat, was fined $517,000 and ordered to pay $5 million in reparations to the victims.

Richard Raymond, the counsel for White Island Tours, said the reparations would be paid by insurance.

"Fortunately, WIT had the foresight to take out the appropriate insurance, statutory liability insurance it's called, and that policy enables reparation to be paid to victims of health and safety breaches.

"That will be paid promptly, certainly within the next 21 days or so, to the Ministry of Justice, who are tasked with administering the collection and the payment out of reparation to the victims."

However, Raymond said the company was not in a position to pay the fines.

"That is a more difficult issue. The company doesn't have any funds to pay a fine, given that the company has not been trading for over three years, has no assets and has considerable debts."

Whakaari White Island sentencing: Richard Raymond KC acting for White Island Tours Ltd at the the sentencing hearing in the Environment Court, Auckland, 26 February 2024.

Richard Raymond is the counsel for White Island Tours. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

He said White Island Tours was likely to close its doors.

"The timeframe for the discussions on liquidations will take place over the next week to two weeks, and the decision will be made by the only remaining director of the company as to whether to place the company into liquidation or whether there are advantages for keeping it going a little longer.

"But it's likely that the company will go into liquidation."

Raymond said a coroner's inquiry into the tragedy was set to begin next year.

The coroner would be looking at aspects of the disaster like the search and rescue operation, whether there were sufficient treatment facilities available, and WorkSafe's role in approving safety audits to allow tours to take place.

An independent review has already found that WorkSafe fell short of good practice in its regulation of activities on Whakaari/White Island.

"[A coronial inquiry] is not a prosecution... but a learning exercise to improve the systems that we work under in New Zealand," Raymond said.

The inquiry could bring more accountability for the tragedy, he said.

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