24 Feb 2022

Government terminates agreement relating to Whakaari/ White island

3:08 pm on 24 February 2022

The government has ditched a Whakaari/ White Island Memorandum of Understanding.

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Nanaia Mahuta says the MOU was terminated "in agreement" with the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence and Emergency Management Group. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is automatically the territorial authority for 11 offshore islands such as Whakaari/White Island, Mōtītī Island and Tūhua (Mayor Island) - instead of a council.

The memorandum with the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence and Emergency Management Group defined her emergency responsibilities for the island, that took the lives of 22 people after a violent eruption in 2019.

But it had caused long-term confusion for the minister.

Department of Internal Affairs staff spent months reviewing her health and safety, civil defence and emergency management duties after the tragedy, only to tell her last year: "It is not clear in the legislation how your role as Territorial Authority is intended to work in practice."

The Department of Internal Affairs reviewed the memorandum signed in 2017, and documents released to RNZ under the Official Information Act show Minister Mahuta wrote to the group two months ago, saying she was "terminating" the agreement.

The group's chair David Love had previously urged her "to become a member of the group which may assist to address any uncertainties" in a letter last July.

But the Minister's December letter said: "I respectfully decline your invitation."

Instead, she said "a more appropriate mechanism" was to have "a senior member of the Department of Internal Affairs" join the group's executive.

In a statement to RNZ this week, Minister Mahuta said when the memorandum was eventually terminated, it was "in agreement" with the group.

In a statement, the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence and Emergency Management Group said the minister would now have "greater participation" and "the group will have regular access to Department of Internal Affairs expertise and insight".
"We see these changes as a positive step towards greater co-operation and coordination."

The 13 defendants accused of health and safety breaches in the leadup to the deadly eruption will go to trial in 2023.

There were 47 people on the volcano in the explosion, most of them international tourists.

Those charged are the island's owner Whakaari Management Limited and its directors Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, as well as public organisations GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency, and tourism businesses White Island Tours Limited, Volcanic Air Safaris Limited, Aerius Limited, Kahu NZ Limited, Inflite Charters Limited, I D Tours New Zealand Limited, and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited.

All have pleaded not guilty.

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