Volcano blast likely, says report

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The Independent Online
An evacuation of the volcano island of Montserrat is back on to the agenda after new scientific evidence showed the danger to islanders is greater than thought.

A government scientist has concluded that within six months there is a one-in-three chance of an explosion up to three times greater than previously experienced.

The report, which has revived the row over government policy towards the dependent territory, shows an even chance of volcanic activity continuing at current levels. Prospects of a decline are put at only one in six.

Areas which are currently regarded as "safe", including parts of the north of the island where houses are being built, are under threat. The document speaks of the possibility of four-inch lumps of rock - large enough to kill or to pierce roofs - being hurled on to the supposedly safe area of St John's. That will raise questions over the Government's policy of building in the area. The government of Montserrat has fought hard to win investment to build up the north of the island, as opposed to the alternative strategy of resettlement.

The new findings follow the publication of last week's select committee report critical of the Government's handling of the issue. Last night Bowen Wells, Conservative chairman of the committee, said: "If this is anywhere near true, it is very serious. I don't think there is any real future in the north whilst the volcano remains active."

Mr Wells argued for a gradual depopulation of the island until the volcano can be proved to be dormant - a course certain to be resisted by the island's government. The Liberal Democrats' international development spokeswoman, Jenny Tonge, said: "The island is not safe either physically or in terms of long-term health. People should be persuaded as much as possible to leave and re- settle until the volcano can be declared safe."

Dr Tonge believes it would be impossible to evacuate islanders rapidly in a sudden emergency.