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New Zealand watchdog lays charges over volcano deaths

The eruption threat alert level was raised in the weeks leading up to the eruption and WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said an investigation had found charges were warranted.

This handout photograph courtesy of Michael Schade shows the volcano on New Zealand's White Island spewing steam and ash minutes following an eruption on 9 December 2019. Picture: AFP

WELLINGTON - New Zealand's workplace watchdog laid charges Monday over the White Island volcanic eruption last year when 22 people died and dozens more suffered horrific burns.

The regulator WorkSafe examined why 47 people, mainly Australian tourists, were on the island in December 2019 when a column of burning ash and steam blasted from a volcanic vent.

The eruption threat alert level was raised in the weeks leading up to the eruption and WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said an investigation had found charges were warranted.

"This deeply tragic event was unexpected but that does not mean it was unforeseeable," he told reporters.

"The victims, both workers and visitors alike, all had a reasonable expectation that they could go to the island knowing that the organisations involved had done all they were required to do to look after their health and safety."

Parkes said 10 organisations and three individuals were charged on Monday morning with failing their safety duties and the case was expected to go to court on December 15.

He refused to identify who was facing charges in case the court granted them name suppression.

They are expected to consist of tourism operators and potentially government departments tasked with monitoring pleasure trips to New Zealand's most active volcano - which is also known as Whakaari.

Parkes said the organisations involved each faced fines of up to NZ$1.5 million (US$1.1 million), with individuals facing maximum fines of NZ$300,000.

He said it was the most extensive and complex investigation his organisation had ever carried out.

A separate inquiry by the coroner's office has been running in parallel with the WorkSafe probe and could potentially result in more charges being recommended.

However, it will not release any findings until the WorkSafe cases have been dealt with.

"The Chief Coroner's inquiry into the Whakaari/White Island eruption deaths remains on hold until other agencies' prosecutions have gone through the judicial process," a spokesman for the coroner said.

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