NZ emergency agency cleared over deadly volcano eruption

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More than 20 people were killed when the White Island volcano erupted in 2019 (AFP/Marty MELVILLE) (Marty MELVILLE)

A New Zealand judge on Wednesday cleared the nation's emergency management agency of safety breaches related to the 2019 White Island volcano eruption, which claimed 22 lives.

Almost 50 people, mostly Australian tourists, were on the island, also known as Whakaari, when burning ash and steam blasted from a volcanic vent.

The eruption killed 22 people and injured 25 more, some of whom were left with horrific injuries.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) was among 13 parties charged with breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Regulator WorkSafe New Zealand said the agency had failed to properly communicate the risks of an eruption to landowners and the public.

But an Auckland District Court judge dismissed charges against the crown agency.

Lawyers for the agency successfully argued the charge was "wholly misconceived".

Judge Evangelos Thomas agreed the agency could not be held accountable under New Zealand's work health and safety legislation.

"NEMA did not carry out any work physically on Whakaari, it did not send workers to Whakaari, it never placed any person on Whakaari," he said.

"Today's hearing is not about whether NEMA did its job properly – it may have, it may not have. It is only about whether WorkSafe can use this particular law to prosecute NEMA."

Eleven other parties have pleaded not guilty and will go to trial next year.

Last week, charter flight company Inflite admitted risk assessment failures.

The company was fined NZ$227,500 (US$147,000) and ordered to pay prosecution costs.

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