By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A total of 272 Hawaii Island residents have called upon Gov. Neil Abercrombie to put an immediate halt to all plans for expanding Hawaii’s geothermal industry until better means of oversight can be put in place.
An April 10 letter was distributed to the press on Wednesday. It refers to a March 13 incident in which electricity powering Puna Geothermal Venture and the surrounding community was cut, and the plant vented steam into the air.
“To protect the plant from overpressure damage, we are told 125,000 pounds of geothermal brine components were vented to the atmosphere over a period of 15 to 20 minutes. This is at least the 60th reported release we’ve experienced in the last 20 years,” the letter reads. “Only now, many of us are learning that this type of industrial pollution is occurring with little or no government oversight.”
The letter says public confidence in geothermal as a viable alternative energy source has been eroded due to a “hands off approach to regulation.”
Bob Petricci, president and founder of Puna Pono Alliance, said Thursday that he supports Geothermal Hawaii’s efforts and was one of the people who signed the letter to the governor.
“We think this needs to be looked at,” he said. “Why, after 30 years, isn’t there a monitoring program that works to protect this community?”
Petricci said that he was one of the first, if not the very first person, to raise the alarm on March 13 when steam began venting from PGV.
“There was no notification system, no emergency response system. They (Civil Defense) say that everything was working fine, but if that’s the case, why didn’t they even set up a roadblock? They were letting people drive right through the area.”
Among the concerns that some Big Isle residents have raised are the levels of hydrogen sulfide released into the community during such emergency venting procedures. They say the levels are much higher than the public is being told, and claim that it is having an impact on the health of people in the area.
“On March 13, many in the community reported a sudden onset of problems ranging from bloody noses and headaches, to nausea and in two cases, fishpond die-offs,” the letter states.
Petricci said he wasn’t aware of any specific documentation of such symptoms, but added that state Department of Health officials missed an opportunity to learn more about the problems by failing to attend a community meeting on the subject.
Meanwhile, the letter claims that state regulators are largely reliant on PGV to monitor itself, “but this monitoring is clearly deficient in safeguarding the public.”
As an example, the letter says that readings of hydrogen sulfide taken near PGV by Hawaii County Civil Defense shortly after the March 13 incident showed two readings of 1,000 and 3,000 parts per billion in residential neighborhoods outside the plant.
“These readings suggest that the regulatory limit of a 25 parts per billion hourly average was exceeded, but without a comprehensive monitoring system in place, and with DOH’s (Department of Health) reliance on PGV to self-report, there is no promise of enforcement,” the letter reads.
On Thursday, Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira said he agrees that a more comprehensive monitoring system is needed. He said that since the March power outage at PGV, he has been working with various experts to fine-tune Civil Defense’s methods for monitoring hydrogen sulfide and the way in which it spreads after being released into the atmosphere.
“We’ve been working with a retired meteorologist from Utah, using a device known as SODAR, it’s like radar using sound waves. Using it, you can measure the different levels in the atmosphere, get an idea how the wind is behaving, and how accumulation is affected by topography,” he said.
Oliveira said that evacuation is required in the event that multiple hydrogen sulfide readings in a particular area show an hourly average of 1,000 parts per billion. In the case of the readings taken on March 13, only two individual readings were that high for a very short period of time, clearing up quickly.
Even so, he was quick to say that he did not want to minimize the concerns of Puna residents, saying that much remains to be discovered in dealing with hydrogen sulfide.
He added that he never received any reports of injuries or illnesses attributed to the venting at PGV.
“I do know that the community was frustrated, saying they didn’t have access to the Department of Health to file formal complaints. But on that day, the calls we received were limited to people saying they could smell it, and they were irritated by it. But, we never had anybody indicate that they had suffered injury,” he said.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, former Mayor Harry Kim said he supports the establishment of a full-time regulatory body to oversee Hawaii’s geothermal industry. He likened the current system to restaurants having no government oversight.
“If you were the government, you wouldn’t ask a restaurant, ‘Call me when a customer gets food poisoning. Then call and tell me what you did about it. Then call me when it’s all OK,’” he said. “The private industry shouldn’t be monitoring and enforcing its own safety.”
In conclusion, the letter calls upon Abercrombie, the Environmental Protection Agency, Civil Defense, and the Department of Health to investigate what many in the community see as systemic issues.
“Until the EPA and Hawaii government authorities can fulfill their obligation to safeguard life and land with a single geothermal plant, we citizens of Hawaii insist that you institute an immediate moratorium on all future geothermal development and exploratory drilling,” the letter reads.
A call to the governor’s office seeking response to the letter went unreturned as of presstime Thursday.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.