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Commission OKs funding for geothermal monitoring

The Windward Planning Commission approved funding Thursday for gas monitors and environmental studies to address concerns over impacts of geothermal development in Puna.

The projects, to be covered by Hawaii County’s geothermal asset fund, are estimated to total $299,000.

They stem from recommendations the county’s geothermal working group made last year.

The funding will cover several fixed and hand-held hydrogen sulfide monitors, ground water sampling in Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, an analysis of published studies on hydrogen sulfide exposure and an environmental assessment of the former HGP-A geothermal test site.

Geothermal development has occurred for several decades in Puna and remains controversial. It began with the test site in the late 1970s and expanded with the 38-megawatt Puna Geothermal Venture plant, built over 20 years ago.

PGV maintains its plant is safe, but many nearby residents remain skeptical and believe monitoring is inadequate.

Hydrogen sulfide leaks have exacerbated concerns, and the consensus among the commissioners was more needs to be done to ensure Puna residents are being protected.

“It’s important we do it right this time around,” said Commissioner Ronald Gonsalves.

Chair Wallace Ishibashi, who was a founding member of the Big Island Geothermal Alliance, agreed.

“This should have been done a long time ago,” he said.

The only disagreement was over the meta-analysis, which involves the John A. Burns School of Medicine analyzing results of hydrogen sulfide studies. It’s intended to be used as a foundation for further studies in Puna.

“We don’t need a study of a study of a study,” said Commissioner Charles Heaukulani.

The commission approved $55,000 for the meta-analysis in a 4-2 vote.

Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s senior Hawaiian affairs director, attended the meeting but did not speak to the commission. He said afterward that PGV continues to support the funding requests.

Five testifiers spoke at the meeting in support of the allocations, though most expressed concern over the absence of a community health study.

Thomas Travis, who was part of the working group, said a study to determine impacts of geothermal development on the health of Puna residents was the group’s top priority. He said it is long overdue.

“It’s important we don’t overspend the account before we get the No. 1 priority,” Travis said.

Testifiers expressed similar concerns at the commission’s January meeting.

County representatives at both meetings said a study request remains in progress.

Mayor Billy Kenoi told the Tribune-Herald he plans to hire a consultant to draft a request for proposals for a health study.

Kenoi said he expects to bring a funding request for a health study before the commission in the “second quarter of this year.”

“Of course people want this done yesterday, but we’re moving as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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