Relatives of volcano victims sue Japan’s weather agency over alert

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 4:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 4:16pm

Family members of some victims of a 2014 volcanic eruption filed a 140 million yen (US$1.2 million) damages lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the weather agency of failing to issue a proper volcanic alert for hikers.

The families of five victims said in the suit filed with the Nagano District Court’s Matsumoto Branch that the agency failed to raise the alert level from 1 to 2 and designate as off limits an area near the crater of Mount Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, before the September 27, 2014 eruption.

It is rare that the focal point of a lawsuit in natural disaster prone Japan is the extent to which the Japan Meteorological Agency is responsible for forecasting volcanic eruptions.

It is the first lawsuit related to the eruption of the volcano, which killed 58 people and left five others missing, presumed dead, according to the plaintiffs. Many deaths resulted from the impact of falling rocks.

The plaintiffs also accused the government of Nagano Prefecture of having left two broken seismographs near the peak unrepaired, according to the lawsuit.

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The plaintiffs said the weather agency should have stopped hikers from entering an area with a radius of 1km around the crater, as the agency had detected volcanic earthquakes 52 times on September 10 and 85 times the following day.

Having 50 volcanic quakes a day is one of criteria for making the area near the crater of Mount Ontake off limits to climbers, according to a document the agency compiled for the first time in March 2016.

Releasing the document, the agency said the alert level for Mount Ontake would have been 2 if the criteria had retrospectively applied to the seismic situation shortly before the 2014 eruption.

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According to the weather agency, volcanic earthquakes exceeding 50 times per day were last detected in January 2007, when a small-scale eruption followed volcanic tremors and crustal changes.

The agency said it left unchanged its alert level before the September 2014 eruption as no volcanic tremors or crustal changes were reported in the month, and the number of volcanic earthquakes was declining after hitting 85.