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Smith "Recklessly Alarmist" Says Lee

7 June 2001
Smith "Recklessly Alarmist" Says Conservation Minister

Conservation Minister Sandra Lee says an early warning system is "well on the way" to being set up to reduce the risk to lives and property from Ruapehu Crater Lake lahars, or floods of water and volcanic debris. In addition, she says, the Police assisted by the Ruapehu District Council and others are setting up arrangements for preventing people being on vulnerable spots on state highways 49 and one when the lahar goes through.

Ms Lee said she had announced last year after considering a comprehensive Environmental Risk Assessment that a public alarm system would be built to ensure authorities had adequate time to close state highways and the railway line to prevent any risk to human life. She said the alarm system would be in place by April 2002.

"Dr Smith is being recklessly alarmist in claiming that peoples' lives will be at risk unless what he himself calls 'minor earthworks' are carried out. Once the system is installed, there will be no chance of a repeat of the situation that led to the1953 Tangiwai rail disaster where the lahar was unexpected as no warning system was in place," Ms Lee said.

"It also needs to be stated that a major lahar is the worst-case scenario. The ash dam at the Crater Lake may turn out to be too weak to hold back any significant volume of water, and in such a case, the lahar would be relatively harmless. But all our planning and preparation assumes the worst case scenario."

Ms Lee said she had arranged for the recommendations in the original DOC report on the proposal to be peer-reviewed by an independent lahar specialist. The review endorsed the findings of the original report, supporting the alarm system, as well as recommending installation of a bund, a stock bank.

She said factors taken into account when crater rim engineering work was discounted included
* risk assessments carried out by agencies such as Transpower and Tranzrail that concluded the risks to their infrastructure did not require engineering work at the crater;
* the fact that installation of an alarm system and responses to it would reduce the risks to the public to very low levels;
* the fact that the alarm system would have long-term benefits, as opposed to the short-term benefits of bulldozing a ditch at the crater rim which could be filled in by an eruption before the lahar occurred;
* the fact that there are other ways a hazardous lahar could be generated, apart from the collapse of the outlet dam, including changes in the crater rim that occurred during or since the 1995-96 eruptions.

"The construction of the early warning system is a DOC management issue, rather than one for the Minister of Conservation; however my prime focus here is on matters of public safety above all else, as I have made consistently clear to the Director-General of Conservation," Ms Lee said.


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