Geothermal relocation requests surge


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii County is now handling 17 relocation requests from Puna residents wanting to move away from the district’s geothermal power plant.

That’s more than double the seven it was handling last month, itself an unprecedented amount.

County Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd said the large increase is causing her to consider hiring a real estate agent to assist the county with processing the requests. She is also concerned about it breaking the bank.

The county’s relocation program, started in 1998, is funded with the Big Island’s share of the state’s geothermal royalties. That fund has about $3.3 million. About $1 million of that is currently held in a reserve account.

“Potentially I will be unable to purchase the last requests to come in because there’s not enough money,” she said.

That could change if Mayor Billy Kenoi signs a bill passed by the County Council last month that, in part, eliminates the reserve account.

But Leithead-Todd said she is also concerned that the current requests, none of which have been approved, won’t be the last.

“Now you assume we will get geothermal money coming in, between ($500,000) and $700,000 in the course of the year,” she said. “But that money is not here yet and some will not be here until next May, possibly.”

Additionally, the bill approved by the council prohibits the county from reselling the acquired properties. The intent is to create a 1-mile buffer zone between residents and the plant. The county said it would have to consider hiring security to watch abandoned structures or demolish the homes.

The influx of relocation requests may make it difficult to fund health studies for the community surrounding the plant operated by Puna Geothermal Venture, a subsidiary of Ormat Technologies Inc., as required by the bill.

The administration is still reviewing whether to approve the bill and another requiring a site-specific evacuation plan for the plant, said county Managing Director William Takaba.

He declined to say what concerns the administration may have. Kenoi, who didn’t return a request for comment, has until July 13 to make a decision.

County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who introduced the bills and is running against Kenoi for mayor, sent a letter to Civil Defense Director Benedict Fuata on Tuesday urging him to get started on hiring a third party to handle a community health study and to get started on an evacuation plan.

Yagong said he wasn’t concerned with the large number of relocations, adding that the county needs to fund all that it can.

“Whatever money is there, that is the money utilized for that particular purpose,” he said.

In regards to other uses, Yagong said that PGV has offered to help pay for a community health study; he also said that another account, the geothermal asset fund, could be used.

He had proposed using that fund to cover capital improvements and other services in lower Puna, expenses that would be eliminated under one of the geothermal bills passed by the council last month.

Yagong said that legislation is still on hold.

Fuata, who had told the Tribune-Herald that he thinks current emergency response plans are sufficient, said he will provide a site-specific document but is unsure if he can do so by the Aug. 1 deadline.

The bill allows for one 90-day extension.

He said he is also open to funding a health study, but was also unsure if it could provide anything that wasn’t addressed in past studies done by the state Department of Health, which found no impact.

“We want to do what’s right by all but it may not satisfy all,” Fuata said.

The county has spent $646,407 on five relocations in the last 14 years with the most recent one approved April 5. Before that, the last property purchased was in 2003.

The county has denied one request so far. For the ones approved, it has purchased them at 130 percent of assessed value, the most allowed.

Leithead-Todd said that will likely have to change.

“Given the number of applications that I have, it seems to me that the fair thing to do is try and purchase as many properties,” she said. “And then that means I will make you an offer. If you don’t like my offer then you don’t have to take it.”

Leithead-Todd said that could mean offering below assessed value, especially if the property was recently purchased below that amount.

“I want to do what’s fair and I don’t think the program should be used to provide a windfall profit to someone,” she said.

The large increase in relocation requests has coincided with a resurgence in opposition to geothermal power in the Puna area, and specifically, the nearly two-decades-old plant run by Puna Geothermal Venture.

The rise in opposition started in the wake of Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s announcement last year that it wanted to build a second geothermal plant on the island, and has yet to crest.

Dozens of opponents have packed recent council meetings calling for more to be done to ensure the safety of the community. Some have talked about health problems, including respiratory illnesses and unexplained bleeding, which they believe may be connected to the plant.

Aurora Martinovich, the most recent Puna resident to have her home purchased under the program, noted having irritated eyes and a sore throat at times while living nearby. Her property bordered the plant, and while she admits vog may be a contributing factor, she is not convinced it was the only cause.

“I feel generally better with vog than I do with geothermal,” she said.

Martinovich has also helped start a group that allows women to discuss their health problems and how they may relate to the plant.

The plant says it operates under a closed system, which pumps steam back deep into the Earth.

Martinovich said she believes the plant has more emissions than it admits.

While there has been much talk about illnesses and the plant, Puna Community Hospital Clinical Programs Director Dan Domizio said he hasn’t seen a correlation between illnesses affecting the clinic’s patients and geothermal power.

“People have asthma, people smoke, there is vog,” he said. “There’s nothing you can look at and say this is a geothermal problem.”

The relocation program doesn’t require an applicant to be adversely affected by the plant to have their property purchased.

Some recent applicants have referred to concerns with noise at the plant caused by well drilling, Leithead-Todd said, while others have talked about health concerns.

The Planning Department is preparing to deny one application because it appears to be for vacant property, she said.

Leithead-Todd said she believes the influx in applications is partly due to residents mistakenly thinking they only have until the end of the year to qualify.

Residents better understanding whether or not they qualify due to recent publicity is also a factor, Yagong said.

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