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Agency takes responsibility for failed risk assessment

Whakaari eruption killed 22 people in December 2019

Jens Bludau / Wikimedia

New Zealand’s Earth science research agency, GNS Science, which is responsible for monitoring seismic and volcanic activity in the region, pleaded guilty to failing to advise helicopter pilots landing on White Island (also known as Whakaari) between February and December 2019 of the volcanic risk. On December 9 of that year, Whakaari volcano erupted, killing 22 people and injuring 25 others. In previous weeks, volcanic alerts had pointed to signs of an upcoming eruption. GNS Science acknowledged that it should have better consulted with helicopter operators carrying agency staff. In November 2020, the chair of WorkSafe New Zealand, the country’s primary workplace health and safety regulator, which made the allegation, claimed that the eruption was unexpected but not unforeseeable and that those who transport people to the island are therefore responsible for their safety. It is the first time that a scientific agency has been charged under the country’s Health and Safety at Work Act of 2015. The offense carries a maximum fine of approximately US$1 million (Nature, June 5).