16 Dec 2019

Whakaari/White Island tourism: Who is responsible for what?

1:07 pm on 16 December 2019

While authorities are still focused on the response to the tragedy at Whakaari/White Island, Cabinet ministers will have to start turning their attention to what could have prevented the tragedy, and what official inquiries may be necessary.

The Whakaari / White Island mission to recover bodies of the victims.

Photo: NZDF

With a myriad of government agencies and regulators involved, RNZ takes a closer look at who is responsible for what.

Health and safety regulator WorkSafe has general oversight of tourism on Whakaari - the future of which is now in doubt following the fatal eruption.

Still, 26 people remain in hospital in New Zealand and Australia - 10 of whom are in a critical condition after the privately-owned island erupted on Monday.

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There are currently two investigations underway - one by police and the other by WorkSafe - as is mandatory when a fatality occurs at a workplace.

On 18 November the alert level for Whakaari/White Island lifted to 2 on the 0-5 scale, indicating moderate volcanic unrest, prompting questions as to why tours were still going ahead on the island when the eruption occurred.

Information obtained from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has confirmed tourism activity, like that on Whakaari/White Island, is subject to adventure tourism regulations under the Health and Safety at Work Regulations 2016, as well the more general health and safety laws.

That means regulatory oversight of tourism at White Island is overseen by the regulator, WorkSafe, but ultimately any restrictions on accessing the island would be up to the private owners.

Tour operators, like White Island Tours, work under the 2016 regulations that require them to undergo a safety audit and register with WorkSafe.

Minister for Maori Development and Local Government Nanaia Mahuta.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

In addition to this, NEMA said under section 22 of the Local Government Act 2002, the Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta was the territorial authority for any part of New Zealand not already part of a district of a territorial authority, which included Whakaari.

A NEMA spokesperson said because the land was uninhabited, privately owned and protected, the minister's legislative responsibilities were generally not exercised for the island.

"While the minister has territorial authority, that doesn't make her responsible for decisions about access to the island, permitting tourism activities or health and safety."

Since the Royal Commission into the 2010 Pike River disaster in which where 29 men were killed, a number of strict new legal requirements have been introduced, including the passage of the Health and Safety Act 2015.

The changes were so wide-reaching it meant the government had to apply to WorkSafe for an exemption to re-enter the mine as part of the recovery.

While workplace laws across the board were strengthened significantly, the regulations specific to adventure activities (including White Island Tours) only had minimal changes.

Emergency powers

In the event of an emergency, the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Emergency Management group kicks into gear as a result of a memorandum of understanding with Mahuta.

If an emergency event takes place on a much larger scale, the NEMA coordinates the response and works with other government groups, including other civil defence centres.

NEMA said the geological hazards and risk assessments, like what was needed before the recovery mission on Friday to collect six bodies from Whakaari, was overseen by GNS Science.

"It has an established monitoring system for the volcano and volcanologists familiar with the volcano and also has links to other national and international expertise," a NEMA spokesperson said.

"GNS, however, has no ability to restrict access to the island. It simply provides advice from which people make their own risk assessment.''

If any health risks from airborne ash and volcanic gases are raised then the Ministry of Health steps in to communicate and act on that.

The control of access to Whakaari is driven by the island being private land, meaning the owner's agreement is needed to restrict entry.

Air and sea controls

While the owners have final say over physical access to the island itself, authorities do have jurisdiction over the air and the sea which means they could prevent access by those means.

Control of the airspace, in particular, volcanic hazard zones, is designated by the Director of Civil Aviation.

While a volcanic hazard zone is permanently designated around Whakaari, the size of that designation can change depending on volcanic alert levels, according to NEMA.

Also, volcanic hazard zones don't limit lawful access of airspace - instead, they're more of a hazard warning.

In the case of Whakaari, a no-fly zone was ordered following the eruption.

Maritime control is overseen by the relevant Harbourmaster in the area, in line with the Maritime Transport Act 1994.

NEMA said the harbourmaster could issue directions regarding the time and manner in which ships may enter into, depart from, lie in, or navigate waters within the region.

An instruction was issued at Whakaari following the eruption in the form of an exclusion zone five nautical miles around the island.

The Director of Maritime can issue an emergency rule on limited grounds for limited periods under the Act and Maritime New Zealand can issue a navigation warning but these are not mandatory or enforceable.

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