30 May 2023

GNS Science pleads guilty to Whakaari / White Island charges

4:26 pm on 30 May 2023
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Whakaari / White Island Photo: Supplied/ University of Canterbury

Five weeks from trial, the Crown Research Institute GNS Science has today pleaded guilty to charges brought against it in the wake of the deadly Whakaari eruption.

And the owners of Whakaari / White Island have failed to have charges relating to health and safety breaches in the leadup to the 2019 eruption thrown out.

The hearings took place in the Whakatāne District Court, sitting in Auckland, before Judge Evangelos Thomas today.

When the volcano erupted on 9 December 2019, 47 people were on the crater and 22 later died from extreme burns and blast injuries.

There are still 12 parties due to face a four-month trial this year - including tourism companies and the island's owners.

The charges against GNS related to multiple field trips its staff took to the island, before the eruption, and the institute's failure in its duty to the helicopter pilots who were contractors.

A WorkSafe investigation found the institute did not sufficiently consult with the pilots about the risks despite carrying out risk assessments for its staff, including volcanologists on the field trips.

GNS monitors volcanoes through its GeoNet programme.

The summary of facts said GNS was required to ensure, as far as was reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers who work for it, including contractors, while they were working on GNS' business.

"This included the helicopter pilots who regularly flew GNS' workers to and from Whakaari and were required to remain on Whakaari while GNS scientists carried out field work," it said.

"While not required to, helicopter pilots would from time-to-time accompany the scientists while they conducted this field work."

In the months leading up to the eruption, GNS staff were transported to and from Whakaari by helicopter pilots on 23 occasions.

GNS will be sentenced in August and could be fined up to $500,000 for its duty to workers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

WorkSafe probe 'a moveable feast' - lawyer

Meanwhile, Judge Thomas dismissed the Whakaari owners' bid to have their charges dropped and they will face trial in July.

Three members of the Buttle family, Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, have been charged as directors for failing in their duty to workers and tourists leading up to the deadly eruption.

Their company, Whakaari Management, is also alleged to have failed in its duty.

The Buttles' lawyer, David Neutze, told the court they would not receive a fair trial in part because the charges against them were not properly laid out and that the WorkSafe investigation was a "moveable feast".

"You can't underestimate the prejudice that these, the only individuals in this case... would face if they still had to address this very broad, inadequately particularised, allegation in the summary of facts when it should have been in the charging documents," Neutze said.

"It's highly unfair if the claim against them is allowed to continue."

WorkSafe prosecutor Michael Hodge said that its case was that the Buttles, while taking some steps, did not take enough steps to meet their obligations under the Act.

Rather than carry out due diligence themselves, "they saw it as satisfactory to say to the tour operators that's your job", Hodge said.

"We have a case where they don't do the first and fundamental thing for directors of getting the risk assessment from those who have the expertise so they don't get to the start line."

In delivering his decision, Judge Thomas said charges could be brought against directors under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

"There can be a public interest, and usually is, in holding directors to account where they may be liable."

He said among the evidence was that the Buttles had been "put on notice" by GNS that they should consider getting expert advice regarding volcanic activity on the island and that they did not get that expert advice.

"That evidence is sufficient to amount to a case to answer. The Buttles' applications are therefore dismissed, however, they were nearly successful," Judge Thomas said.

In part, this meant WorkSafe was limited to the allegation that they failed to obtain expert advice that the guided tours were conducted safely.

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