Fatal island’s volcano site ‘not our responsibility’

The New Zealand Government has absolved itself of any liability over the volcano eruption that killed up to 13 people and injured 30 others, with victims and families facing potentially lengthy delays in receiving compensation.

All levels of government from the local council through to the minister responsible for offshore territories have said White Island was the sole responsibility of tour operators and the private trust company that owned it.

The declaration comes as public grief has turned to frustration and anger over a befuddled co-ordination of the recovery of at least eight bodies left on the island.

Eight people are confirmed dead, another eight pronounced missing presumed dead and 25 remain in critical condition in hospital after White Island erupted on Monday with 47 tourists on the atoll.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with first responders at the Whakatane Fire Station. Picture: Dom Thomas/Radio NZ/Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with first responders at the Whakatane Fire Station. Picture: Dom Thomas/Radio NZ/Getty Images

Today, to relieve the tension the government buckled to public pressure and offered to conduct "a quick uplift" of the eight bodies on the island as opposed to what they initially suggested would be a long drawn out process involving a crime scene and WorkSafe NZ investigation.

The disaster has also put enormous pressure on Australia's burns units that had already donated 10,000 sq cm of skin to New Zealand counterparts and now needed more themselves to cope with treating those Australian victims being repatriated.

The donor skin acts as a type of temporary biological dressing for serious burns patients as their own skin grows for grafting later on.

Severely burnt victims could need anywhere up to 30,000 square centimetres of skin.

Police Minister Stuart Nash conceded he had demanded a greater level of transparency in what authorities were doing not just for the recovery of the bodies but for their families and survivors in hospitals around the country.

"You can imagine there is a degree of frustration, I mean I can imagine that but what we have decided is that perhaps the level of communication needs to be just a little bit more robust to ensure that victims families are up to date the whole time," he said.

"The level of communication with the families will increase."

Footage taken by Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann minutes before the White Island volcano erupted.
Footage taken by Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann minutes before the White Island volcano erupted.

 

The comment came after police abruptly ended a press conference and refused to answer questions and also when they announced a criminal investigation only to two hours later back track and say it was a coronial inquiry.

Lawyers said the dropping of the "criminal" word suggested authorities no longer wanted to predetermine the possibility of criminal negligence of taking tourists to the active volcano.

New Zealand has a public insurance compensation scheme were tourists and residents can apply for monetary compensation for a physical or mental injury without having to prove in court anyone identifiable person particularly was at fault.

But the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) would be infinitely less than a criminal case finding against tour operators or the cruise liner Royal Caribbean who effectively endorsed the operators by offering the trip to its passengers.

The Australian government has not weighed in yet on financial relief for families facing huge medical costs to have victims treated for burns, in some cases of up to 70 per cent of their bodies.

However, defence will absorb the costs of the ADF component of the repatriation efforts.

As police and WorkSafe investigators look at Kiwi bureaucracy today denied they had authority over the volcanic outcrop.

Satellite images taken May 12, 2019, left, and December 11, 2019, right, by Maxar Technologies steam rises from the volcano on White Island off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand. Picture: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP
Satellite images taken May 12, 2019, left, and December 11, 2019, right, by Maxar Technologies steam rises from the volcano on White Island off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand. Picture: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP

Whakatane District Mayor Judy Turner declined to be interviewed by News Corp Australia but said the only point she wanted to make was despite the island being off her Bay of Plenty shore, her council had no control or authority over it.

Ms Turner said the Department of Internal Affairs was responsible.

The department said no, the responsibility sat with the Local Government MP and Minister for Māori Development and Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment Nanai Mahuta.

A departmental spokeswoman said they only supported the minister in her work and had no role in licensing of activities or looking at compliance.

Ms Mahuta said while she may have responsibility for New Zealand's offshore islands that responsibility did not extend to access, tourism or health and safety.

 

She said it was a private island and she had no role.

"I do not have consenting or permitting responsibilities for he activities of tourism operators and I do not have health and safety responsibilities for the operations of private businesses such as tour operators," she said.

"This is the responsibility of local operators on the island, they are registered by WorkSafe NZ."

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council agreed it too had no powers or legislative responsibility to what occurs on the island but only had an agreement to respond if there was an emergency such as the eruption on Monday.

Some New Zealand families have had to set up social media funding page appeals for money for treatment and funerals of loved ones.



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