Shropshire Star

Tour operators told to pay £6.27m over volcanic eruption

The eruption on White Island killed 22 people in December 2019.

New Zealand Volcano Trial

Tour booking agents and managers of a New Zealand island where a volcanic eruption killed 22 people in 2019 have been ordered to pay nearly 13 million NZ dollars (£6.27 million) in fines and reparations.

The holding company of the island’s owners, a boat tour operator and three companies that operated helicopter tours were found guilty of safety breaches at a three-month trial last year.

White Island, the tip of an undersea volcano also known by its Maori name Whakaari, was a popular tourist destination before the eruption.

There were 47 tourists and tour guides on the island when superheated steam erupted on December 9 2019, killing some people instantly and leaving survivors with agonising burns.

“There is no way to measure the emotional harm survivors and affected families have endured and will continue to endure,” Judge Evangelos Thomas said during Friday’s sentencing in a Wellington court.

“Reparation in a case like this can be no more than token recognition of that harm.

“No review of prevailing reparation levels conducted by any other court contemplates emotional harm of the scale and nature that is present in this case. Greater awards are appropriate.”

Previously, a three-month, judge-only trial against 13 groups had seen six plead guilty and six other having charges brought by regulators dismissed.

The final remaining defendant in the trial was Whakaari Management Ltd which was found guilty on one charge in October last year.

Judge Thomas was particularly scathing towards Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, the shareholders of WML, the holding company for the island’s owners, who he said had “appeared to have profited handsomely” from tours to the island, despite the company claiming no assets or a bank account to hold funds.

“This case, like many others, sadly reveals how simply corporate structures can be used to thwart meaningful responses to safety breaches,” Judge Thomas said. “There may be no commercial basis for doing so, but many would argue there is an inescapable moral one.

“We wait to see what the Buttles will do. The world is watching.”

The specific reparation sums awarded to victims and the families of those who died was suppressed for publication by the court.

The penalty for the last remaining defendant, New Zealand scientific agency GNS Science, will be announced later on Friday.

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