White Island eruption: WorkSafe charges against Kahu NZ helicopter company 'silly' - owner

Charges laid against a helicopter company in relation to the White Island eruption are "silly" and "wanting", according to its owner - who was also one of the first responders to the disaster that claimed 22 lives.

Mark Law, a helicopter pilot, is the owner and founder of Kahu New Zealand, a Whakatane-based helicopter service that previously offered flights to Whakaari/White Island. He was also one of the first on the scene when the active volcano exploded on December 9, 2019, killing 22 and leaving 25 others with severe, life-altering injuries. 

On Monday, it was revealed that 13 parties - 10 organisations and three individuals - had been charged in relation to the tragedy following a year-long investigation by WorkSafe, New Zealand's workplace health and safety regulator - including Kahu NZ. 

However, none of the allegations against the 13 parties relate to recovery or rescue efforts, the investigation centred solely on the health and safety measures in place prior to the eruption. The 10 companies face a maximum fine of $1.5 million for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act, with nine facing a Section 36 charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of workers and others.

Speaking to Magic Talk's Ryan Bridge on Monday evening, Law detailed some of the charges laid against Kahu NZ - revealing that he had "reservations" about the allegations.

"Looking at the allegations that we got served up… I think it's a bit wanting. I think some of the allegations [against us] were really silly, in my opinion. I think if that's the best they've come up with, yeah - I've got my reservations about it, that's for sure," Law said. 

Following the eruption, Law and two crews from Kahu NZ immediately flew to the island and helped to evacuate a number of survivors, alongside pilot Tim Barrow from Volcanic Air - a business that revealed it is among the charged parties on Monday. 

Although Law agreed that an investigation was the "right thing to do", he thought WorkSafe had glossed over the contributions made by the companies. 

"Listening to their presentation on [Monday] afternoon, it was pretty much like, 'you're guilty'... that's not in the spirit of what people like myself have been out there doing to ensure the safety of myself, my staff, the family," he told Bridge.

"When you see this side launched out and slammed into people and companies and businesses - which I think were all trying to do their best - it's quite uncomfortable."

Law said one of the six charges laid against Kahu NZ relates to the company's failure to implement a sufficient asbestos management plan, following claims that asbestos had been detected in an old factory frequented by visitors as part of the island's on-land tours - which are suspended for the foreseeable future. 

"One was that we failed to implement an asbestos plan, well there's no confirmation of an asbestos issue at White Island. There were allegations, we looked into it," he explained.

"[But] one of the allegations [being] that we failed to implement a plan - when it wasn't confirmed - is crazy."

Law claims that the asbestos claims were investigated, but there was no proof of the harmful mineral's existence on the island.

"I can't find any proof, I wasn't sent any proof. There was nothing else showing that there was asbestos there, to my knowledge as an operator going to the island," he said.

"When you see that sort of turn up as one of your six allegations, you think - what the hell is going on here?"

Another charge against the organisation relates to equipment not being properly maintained, Law said.

"And then 'failed to take care of maintenance of a gas mask'. Well, it's not hard to clean a gas mask… the issue [being that] the respiratory protective equipment (RPE) wasn't adequate. When I was running around on the island helping people out, it worked damn fine to me and we were in the thick of it," he said.

"I know one of the doctors said it really prevented a lot of serious issues."

Law also noted that the charges against Kahu NZ had "completely nothing to do" with the disaster itself.

In a press conference from Wellington on Monday, WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said in an emotional statement that while the tragic event was unexpected, it wasn't unforeseeable.

"It's my hope that those connected to this terrible tragedy will take some comfort from knowing that those who we consider did not meet their obligations will have to account for their actions or inactions in court," he explained.

"The victims, both workers and visitors alike, all had a reasonable expectation that they could go to the island knowing that those organisations involved had done all they were required to do to look after their health and safety. But had they?

"That's the question WorkSafe was mandated to investigate. After the largest and most complex investigation WorkSafe has ever undertaken, we have concluded that 13 parties did not meet their obligations, and should face charges in court."

A preliminary hearing will be held at Auckland District Court on December 15, 2020, with a second court hearing likely in 2021.

WorkSafe's findings come just nine days before the one-year anniversary of the disaster. A public memorial will be held at 11:30am on December 9 at the Mataatua Reserve in Whakatāne to commemorate those who lost their lives.