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Experts fear charging GNS Science could have silencing effect on its ability to give advice

Scientists fear charging GNS Science over the Whakaari/White Island eruption could affect their ability to give free and frank advice.

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The Government agency is being charged over the Whakaari/White Island, with some fearing it will negatively affect their ability to give free and frank advice. Source: 1 NEWS

Ten companies and three individuals were yesterday charged by Worksafe after 22 people died in the December 9, 2020 eruption. 

While it’s unclear who is involved and the charges they are facing, the research institute, which monitors seismic activity as part of its duties, is among those charged

"We stand by our people and our science — which we will continue to deliver for the benefit of NZ," the Government agency said yesterday in a statement. 

"We will continue to co-operate fully with the authorities, while carrying on with the crucial role GNS Science has in monitoring and sharing scientific information about Aotearoa New Zealand’s geohazards, including volcanoes.

"The 2019 eruption at Whakaari was a tragic event, and one year on, our thoughts are still with those who were seriously injured and their families. Our thoughts are also with the families of those who lost their lives and the affected communities."

New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Troy Baisden said scientists fear the uncertainty may have a chilling effect by silencing them over the "potential for prosecution". 

"That's a big concern for scientists. They want to know what's happening and they want to know that they can do their job,” he said.

Baisden is calling on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s chief science advisor, Juliet Gerrard, to open up a discussion about Whakaari / White Island.

"It's very important that does occur because it will help the public understand the role that science plays in keeping them safe," Baisden said.

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The Workplace Safety Minister has written to MBIE seeking assurance that WorkSafe's governance of White Island Tours was up to scratch before last year's eruption. Source: 1 NEWS

While Gerrard was unavailable for an interview, her office pointed to a blog post, written last month, warning about the fear of legal action against scientists restricting good decision-making.

The disaster also raises questions about who was responsible for public safety on privately-owned land. White Island is owned by the Buttle family.

Two scientists told 1 NEWS that GNS Science did not allow its workers on the island the week before the eruption, but GNS would not confirm the claims.

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WorkSafe has refused to reveal who the 13 parties are who have been charged, but many have already come forward. Source: 1 NEWS

Shane Cronin, a professor in volcanology, said while tourists continuing to visit the island despite warnings was a "big problem" and "a gap in responsibility," it was not the responsibility of GNS to "enforce restrictions of others," he said.

Cronin called it a grey area which needs to be addressed.

"The Department of Conservation, in Ruapehu's case, would restrict access to the volcano if there were a strong hazard warning but for places like Whaakari, there is a gap."

Scientists want the complex layers of risk management to be scrutinised.

"It's an offshore island, there's private ownership, there are a number of different agencies that are all part of that big system or big machine that's coming together to manage what that risk might be," Tom Wilson, a professor in disaster risk and resilience, said.

Scientists are concerned another disaster will strike before the court case is resolved, and what it means for the advice they give.