Saturday, December 12, 2020

Roger Childs: A Royal Commission should investigate the White Island tragedy

It’s now a year on from the disaster which killed 22 people in the Bay of Plenty, mainly Australians. The governor-general, prime minister and other dignitaries were there for the recent anniversary and took the usual photo opportunities. There was a lot of grief and sorrow, but I didn’t hear White Island Tours giving an apology.

 Last year’s catastrophe was an accident waiting to happen and it appears that because of the blasé attitude and greed of the tour company, lives were lost. Most people would have expected a Royal Commission to investigate the tragedy as happened with the Pike River Mine disaster and the shootings at the Christchurch mosques. Instead the government workplace regulator WorkSafe carried out an inquiry and last week decided to prosecute – 10 organisations and 5 individuals – seemingly anyone who had anything to do with the tragic events in the Bay of Plenty in December 2019. However Work Safe did not include themselves!

This scattergun approach to assigning culpability may have been intended to soften the blow for the chief culprits: the Ngati Awa tour operators.

A week before the catastrophe a GeoNet scientist had cautioned that White Island was entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal. On a scale of five the danger level went up from 1 to 2, however the operators said that was still inside their safety guidelines. Nevertheless, that increase in scale put the danger up from 20% to 40% - surely too high to risk lives in a potentially explosive and lethal environment.

There are many questions to be answered and a key one is, were the operators – Ngati Awa Group Holdings - just too hungry for the big bucks that the tourists were prepared to part with for the experience of getting close to an active volcano? The luxury cruise liner, Ovation of the Seas, was only in Tauranga for the day, so the opportunity for the company to take visitors out to White Island was apparently too good to miss.

A Royal Commission is needed to investigate the tragedy as WorkSafety is compromised by its function as the government body entrusted to regulate workplace safety. Surely the organisation itself should to be on the prosecution list because it clearly failed in its duty in Whakatane last year. 

It is difficult to understand why GeoNet is included as they gave the tour operators the vital information that the risk of taking tourists out to the island was too great. Also how could helicopter operators who helped with recovering bodies possibly be culpable?

In hindsight it was a disastrous option taken by the company and one wonders if the boat operators on approaching the volcano noticed any tell-tale signs of impending danger in the colour of the water, volcanic noise and the level of steam activity on the island.

Many would argue that this is another case of corporate manslaughter. Rebecca Mcfie in Tragedy at Pike River Mine put a strong case for the mining company being arraigned on this charge for the West Coast mining disaster which claimed 29 lives ten years ago. The finger of culpability clearly pointed at company boss, Peter Whittall, who could well be in jail today rather than running a rest home in Wollongong.

The public both here and in Australia need answers as to why 22 people died on White Island as a consequence of risks not being heeded and poor decision making. An independent investigation carried out by a Royal Commission is the best way to get to the truth and it is surprising that it was not set up earlier.

Roger Childs is a writer and freelance journalist. He is a former history and geography teacher, who wrote or co-authored 10 school textbooks.

1 comment:

DeeM said...

The key thing is the GeoNet 1-5 warning scale. Assuming 1 is the lowest, then on Roger's analysis there is ALWAYS a 20% chance of an eruption. That's a 1 in 5 chance. One what - day, week, month, year, decade? How do you work with that? 20% seems pretty high just as a base level so when dealing with volcanoes you probably wouldn't visit the island at all. You should probably close the Tongariro Crossing as well using that logic.
What we actually know is that the island hardly erupts at all, probably only a few times in an average lifetime. There are lots of places on Earth that pose dangers to humans. Part of the thrill of visiting them is seeing the true power of nature at work. But there's always a risk.
These days, in our precautionary principle society, people have been programmed to believe that all risks can be managed and avoided. The truth is they can't.
The tour operator is clearly in the business of making money but the last thing they want is for someone to be killed on their tour because that's the end of their business. I suspect that they were probably working within the guidelines they have always used and have regarded as safe. But with the GeoNet scale you're never safe - exactly the way GeoNet want it so when there is an eruption they can always say we told you so, regardless of the warning level. That's called covering your arse and is hiding the fact that their equipment is not as accurate as they tell everyone.
If you want to blame someone, ultimately WorkSafe is at fault. It was aware that tours to White Island have been going on for years. It was aware that the company used the GeoNet scale as a "guide" on safety. The same scale that always reports a 20% chance of an eruption as a minimum. Yet, they happily allowed the activity to continue.
Instead they run for cover and blame everyone else - typical government department.