New Zealand begins sentencing of those involved in White Island volcanic eruption

By Lucy Craymer

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Sentencing for the tour booking agents and managers of an island in New Zealand where a volcanic eruption killed 22 people, mostly tourists, in 2019 began on Monday, with the prosecutor warning those sentenced may not be able to pay a fine.

There were 47 people on White Island, also known by the Maori name of Whakaari, when the volcano erupted on Dec. 9, 2019. Many of the survivors were badly burnt by searing gas and ash. Most of the victims were tourists from countries including Australia, the U.S. and Malaysia.

Tour operators White Island Tours, Volcanic Air Safaris, Kahu New Zealand and Aerius, along with the corporate owner of the island, Whakaari Management Limited, are being sentenced on at least one criminal charge related to insufficiently ensuring the safety of workers and visitors to the island. Each charge carries a maximum fine of NZ$1.5 million ($924,750.00).

Kirsty McDonald, prosecutor for workplace regulator Worksafe, said those sentenced had indicated they did not have the ability to pay a fine but argued the judge should impose appropriate financial penalties even if they were not paid.

“The hurt that was caused was immeasurable,” McDonald said in her opening statement. “There was catastrophic loss of life.”

White Island, an active volcano, lies around 50 km (31 miles) offshore from the town of Whakatane on the east coast of North Island and had been a popular tourist destination prior to the eruption. Tourists are no longer able to visit the island.

Victims and their families, several of whom have travelled from overseas, will read out statements about the impact of the eruption on their lives before the judge hands down sentences and required reparation payments later this week or next week.

McDonald said White Island Tours had NZ$5 million and Volcanic Air had NZ$300,000 available for reparation payments through insurance they held. The other entities did not have funds available to pay reparations.

Government funded research institute Geological Nuclear Sciences will be sentenced later in the week for its failure to ensure the health and safety of helicopter pilots transporting scientists to the island. The charge is unrelated to the events on the day of the eruption.

($1 = 1.6221 New Zealand dollars)

(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Stephen Coates)