Labor dispute disrupts Pepeekeo power plant project


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Dozens of construction workers could lose their jobs on a bioenergy plant project in Pepeekeo following a decision in a labor dispute.

Hu Honua Bioenergy is currently in the middle of a reconstruction project that will convert the former sugar mill power plant at Pepeekeo into a biomass electricity generation station. The new construction is being performed under a labor agreement with various unions, according to a written statement provided by a company spokeswoman.

“The general contractor for reconstruction of the (Hu Honua) facility, Hawaiian Dredging Construction Company, has been informed of a labor jurisdiction decision involving two craft unions and is awaiting official written notice,” the spokeswoman wrote.

The unions involved are United Association of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers, AFL-CIO. It was unclear whether any workers from those unions were employed by Hawaiian Dredging.

“Dozens of workers are affected,” the spokeswoman wrote. “Once a final determination is made, (Hu Honua) understands that new workers may be assigned from a different union. The duration of this transition has yet to be determined.”

Kevin Owen, general manager of Hu Honua’s biomass plant in Pepeekeo, said Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on the decision, referring all questions to spokeswoman Barbara Hastings of communications firm Hastings & Pleadwell.

“We’re going through some changes right now, and the respective parties on the mainland are figuring all this out,” he said.

According to Hastings, the decision regarding the dispute was made in Washington, D.C., using the Plan for the Settlement of Jurisdictional Disputes in the Construction Industry.

The plan provides procedures for resolving jurisdictional disputes “between and among employers and unions,” according to the website for the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

“(Hu Honua) personnel are not affected by this decision, and all — about two dozen — continue to work on oversight, planning, maintenance and security at the site,” the statement said.

A little over a year ago, Hu Honua entered into a 20-year agreement with Hawaii Electric Light Co. to provide the Big Island with 21.5 megawatts of energy created from the burning of biomass — primarily eucalyptus trees planted along the North Hilo and Hamakua coasts. That’s enough to provide 10 percent of the island’s energy, or by HELCO’s calculation, enough to power 14,000 homes.

“This will have no impact on the power purchase agreement” between Hu Honua and HELCO, Hastings wrote in an email in response to questions about the labor decision.

What effect, if any, the decision will have on the timetable of the agreement remains to be seen, as the state Public Utilities Commission has not yet issued an order on the agreement.

“… that decision will determine (the) timetable,” Hastings said. “Documents were still being filed in May in the docket.”

The PUC process has been under way for about 10 months, and its approval is required before Hu Honua can begin providing power to HELCO.

Pepeekeo Sugar Mill operated as the coal-burning Hilo Coast Processing Co. until 2004. Company officials have touted the refurbishment phase, which was expected to last about 18 months, as generating between 80 and 100 jobs, with 28 to 30 jobs once the facility begins operation. Meanwhile, about 100 additional jobs would be indirectly generated.

The plant is expected to process 260,000 tons of biomass and displace 250,000 barrels of oil every year.

The process to launch the plant has continued, despite objections from neighbors who fought the project throughout the permitting process. They fear air quality issues, and accuse Hu Honua of “greenwashing” its environmental impacts by estimating the annual emissions to be below the 250-ton cap for minor sources of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide releases.

Supporters have pointed to the jobs generated by the project as well as the sustainability of the energy source, as opposed to the use of fossil fuels.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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