GNS Science pushes for lower fine over Whakaari failings

4:54 pm on 29 February 2024
View of Whakaari / White Island from a monitoring flight on 31 August, 2022.

Whakaari/White Island. Photo: GNS

This story has been updated to clarify the fine amount argued by WorkSafe as a starting range.

The sentencing hearing for GNS Science, which pleaded guilty to failing to fully communicate risks of flying to Whakaari/White Island, has finished for the day, and will return for the judge's decision on Friday afternoon.

WorkSafe has argued GNS Science should be fined from a starting range of $150,000 and $250,000 for failing to communicate the risks of flying to Whakaari White Island.

The sentencing for Crown research institute GNS Science is underway at the Auckland District Court, in a hearing separate to the five companies found guilty of safety failings in the 2019 disaster.

WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald told the court GNS failed to communicate the risk to helicopter pilots flying its scientists to Whakaari between 2016 and 2019.

"Scientists at GNS made regular trips to Whakaari to perform fieldwork involving various volcanic monitoring activities," she said.

Whakaari White Island court hearing sentencing
Kristy McDonald KC for worksafe

Kristy McDonald. Photo: Stuff/Ricky Wilson

"In order to get there, GNS usually contracted helicopter pilots to fly its staff to the island, remain on the island while the staff carried out the fieldwork, and fly the staff back."

McDonald said the charges levelled at GNS Science did not relate to the Whakaari White Island disaster itself.

"This charge does not relate to the tragic events of the 9th of December 2019, although that day does provide a stark illustration of the incredibly serious consequences when things go wrong," she said.

WorkSafe argued GNS Science's failures were enough to justify a fine in the starting range of $150,000 to $250,000. The maximum penalty for the charges GNS Science faced was a fine of $500,000.

GNS Science accepted it failed to communicate the risks, but argued it should be fined in a starting range between $80,000 and $90,000.

Its lawyer Rachel Reed said the agency took the sentencing seriously, and felt deeply for the victims, family and wider community affected by the Whakaari disaster.

GNS Science chief executive Chelydra Percy, alongside board member Andrew Cordner and principal scientist Dr Jillian Jolley, travelled to Auckland for the sentencing and were present in the courtroom.

Reed said a fundamental backdrop to the charge was that GNS did provide robust and sound scientific advice in its volcanic alerts.

"In essence, that science was right. Sadly, the development of that science did not permit GNS - or any other volcanologist - to predict an eruption at Whakaari, which could occur at any time with little or no warning, given the nature of Whakaari itself as opposed to other volcanoes that GNS monitors," Reed said.

Reed said GNS had communicated with helicopter and tour operators through letters, emails and phone conversations and they did what they could to raise the risk of flying to Whakaari.

"The remaining charge and agreed summary of facts does not in any way suggest that risk assessments should have been prepared for the pilots by GNS, or that they should have been provided to the helicopters. This is a communication charge," she said.

The sentencing hearing for GNS Science will return on Friday for the judge's decision.

The other five companies who were found guilty last year will hear their final sentences on Friday morning.

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