24 Aug 2023

Whakaari / White Island owners explain safety measures taken before eruption

2:18 pm on 24 August 2023
Whakaari / White Island

Whakaari / White Island. Photo: Unsplash / Farrah Fuerst

A court has heard how the owners of Whakaari / White Island provided health and safety on the volcanic island.

Andrew, Peter and James Buttle and their company Whakaari Management Limited (WML) are on trial for allegedly breaching health and safety rules in the lead-up to the eruption on 9 December, 2019 that killed 22 people.

Their interview with WorkSafe from 2020 played in the Auckland District Court on Thursday. In it, WorkSafe inspector Christian Bell asked the brothers about any developments or changes to infrastructure they made to, or on, the island before the eruption.

Peter said a health and safety container was installed, after GNS Science raised it with them, asking "for permission to put it on the island, which of course we said 'absolutely'."

Peter said they were asked for a contribution "which we were more than happy to provide along with the other operators, because it was an improvement in terms of the safety on the island".

Andrew added that if the operators asked for something that added to safety, then WML would approve it.

He said WML did not maintain any infrastructure on the island.

"We provided the operators with access to the island. If they needed something done… with the helipads we would say, 'Yeah, if you need that, that's something we'll give you approval to do if it makes it safer'," Andrew said.

Survivors of the tragedy have criticised the state of the jetty on the island. Peter said the previous owners of White Island Tours, Peter and Jenny Tait, had approached them with suggestions about how the jetty might be improved.

"We always approved anything that they wanted to do themselves, and then there was one time when they came to us and wanted to put in a solid container full of concrete to try and provide a breakwater to make the landing on.

"They put that in and we contributed to the cost of that, and that lasted about a week before the waves rolled it out of the way.

"But we supported them in anything that they wanted to do regarding the jetty - if there was anything they wanted to do we were more than happy for them to do it."

Ngati Awa bought White Island Tours in 2017.

WorkSafe questioned WML on whether they knew if visitors were told that a trip to the volcano could result in death. Peter said it was hard to know.

"I can't recall from my last trip with an operator how they explained it, but it's sort of underwritten in the risk of going to a volcano."

Judge Evangelos Thomas is presiding over the judge-alone trial into the Whakaari / White Island eruption. Pictured on 13 July 2023.

Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Bell said when people are on holiday they do things they would not otherwise, and WML had the responsibility to ensure people were informed of the risk of death.

"It was explained, it's just that, that you're suggesting that maybe it wasn't explained enough or fully or the consequence enough," James said. "It's very hard to judge, because when you drive into Christchurch you're not explained that there could be an earthquake."

"You're stepping on to an active volcano," Andrew added. "It's probably one of the best well-advertised [sic]. I mean, you go down a river and it could be a very dangerous river, but it's just a river.

"I don't think they ever hid the fact it was an active volcano, and unfortunately it was on that day eruptive."

Bell asked the Buttles how WML satisfied itself the licenced tour operators were giving guides and visitors the right equipment.

Peter said they believed they were giving them similar equipment GNS used in the areas of the crater - hard hats, gas masks and boots. Andrew said they did not have any formal discussions with the operators about the equipment being used.

The trial continues, with the remainder of the interview to play in court on Friday.

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