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White Island disaster: 13 organisations, individuals face court in Whakatane

Thirteen defendants faced court today as the case continues into the White Island disaster that claimed 22 lives when the volcano erupted.

Thirteen organisations and people could face fines of up to $A1.4 million each if found guilty of causing death or serious injury in New Zealand’s Whakaari/White Island disaster that claimed 22 lives and left others with horrific injuries.

A hearing a Whakatane District Court, the closest major city to White Island, today saw 13 defendants face charges laid by New Zealand’s workplace health and safety regulator WorkSafe.

On December, 9, 2019, the volcano located 48 kilometres from the north coast of the North Island erupted while scores of tourists were exploring the island.

Many of those were form the Ovation of the Seas, a cruise ship which had departed from Sydney.

Super-heated steam and volcanic gases were expelled, covering much of the island where 47 people were still exploring. The deaths included 14 Australians.

The thirteen organisations and people charged by WorkSafe included the National Emergency Management Agency, GNS science – New Zealand’s geology agency, and the Buttle Family who owned the island.

RELATED: Aftermath of White Island volcano eruption

The charges relate to why workers and others were allowed to enter the island which at the time was at alert level 2, which meant there was a heightened risk of “volcanic unrest”.

The highest alert level is 5, which is a major volcanic eruption.

Each of the 13 defendants could face a fine of $NZ1.5 million.

At Thursday’s hearing, the National Emergency Management Agency pleaded not guilty. However, the remaining 12 organisations and individuals have yet to enter a plea.

The solicitor for White Island Tours, Richard Raymond, told Judge Evangelos Thomas that it would “simply not be conducive to justice” for his client to make a plea as they were still awaiting disclosure of documents, the New Zealand Herald reported.

He said the defence had received 3000 documents so far, “only half the story”.

“And some of those documents are hundreds of pages long.”

WorkSafe lawyer Kirsty McDonald pushed backed against the delay.

“It is surprising to the prosecution given the extent of the initial disclosure already provided to the defendants that they are not in a position to do so today.”

WorkSafe chief executive officer Phil Parkes earlier said the prosecution was the result of the most extensive and complex investigation ever undertaken by the organisations.

“We investigated whether those with any involvement in taking tourists to the island were meeting their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

“We consider that these 13 parties did not meet those obligations. It is now up to the judicial system to determine whether they did or not.”

Judge Thomas said all pleas must be entered by August 24.

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