Mayor backs health study


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Mayor Billy Kenoi says he intends to implement the recommendations of the Geothermal Public Health Assessment, including a comprehensive health effects study for Puna.

Such a study on the impacts of geothermal development has been lacking, the group that put together the report on behalf of Hawaii County concluded, with insufficient monitoring also complicating efforts to understand if the public’s health is at risk.

The group consisted of a dozen residents of Puna, home to the state’s only geothermal power plant, Puna Geothermal Venture, and was coordinated by Peter Adler of Accord Consultants. Its report was finalized Sept. 9 and can be viewed at www.accord3.com/pg68.cfm.

Kenoi in a phone interview commended the group’s work and said he does not plan to let the 72-page report sit on the shelf.

“We want to ensure that the public safety and public health is paramount,” he said. “We need to determine with accuracy and specify exactly what harm if any is being caused.”

Kenoi commissioned the report to be done about a year ago in response increasing concerns in Puna over existing geothermal development and plans by Hawaii Electric Light Co. to expand it by another 50 megawatts.

Geothermal development has occurred in the district, which sits on the Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, since the 1970s with commercialization occurring in the early 1990s with the start of PGV, located off Kapoho Road.

The 38-mgw plant got off to a rocky start with a well blowout in 1991 that frayed nerves and continues to raise concerns with the safety of the technology.

The study group’s report notes that there were health effects caused by the blowout, which released 180 pounds per hour of hydrogen sulfide, but what impact continued operation of the plant has had over the last two decades remains uncertain.

The group recommends a health study address four hypotheses: central nervous system degradation will be higher in a sample population as a result of peak exposure to hydrogen sulfide; central nervous system degradation and other health effects from hydrogen sulfide will be greater in areas of highest exposures; contamination of heavy metals and chemicals from geothermal development may have impacted drinking water supplies; and residents who live closest to PGV may be more likely to show anxiety disorder symptoms.

How soon such a study could be implemented remains to be seen.

“We know this is going to take a few months,” Kenoi said. “We would like to move as quickly and as expeditiously as possible.

“To get this done by the end of the year or early 2014, that would be great.”

Kenoi said he plans to meet with group members in the next few weeks to discuss their eight recommendations.

Included in those recommendations are increasing monitoring, evaluating effects on drinking water and ocean environment, ensuring there is no contamination from the closed HGP-A well, strengthening public communication and alerts, and requiring that geothermal developers should be required to conduct a health and water resource baseline study before any more drilling occurs.

The last recommendation may have the largest impact on geothermal companies as they seek to meet HELCO’s demand for more geothermal energy.

The utility received six bids, including one from PGV, for supplying the 50 mgw.

It is expecting to make a selection in November.

Tom Travis, a member of the group, said he was reassured that Kenoi plans to follow through with the report.

“I hope he does and I’m encouraged to hear that he is,” he said.

“I think the devil is in the details in the kind of health study we need,” Travis added.

It wouldn’t be the first study.

Previously, studies have also taken a look at the issue in Puna, but on more of a limited scale.

One published in 2001 concluded that Puna residents have higher health effects normally associated with hydrogen sulfide. It was criticized by the state Department of Health for partially relying on volunteers rather than only using randomized samples.

Another following the blowout showed that respondents reported excessive noise, sulfur odors, eye irritations and trouble breathing as a result.

The county is already ahead of the curve when it comes to improving monitoring and informing the public of incidents at the plant.

Recently, the county has purchased hand-held monitors for detecting hydrogen sulfide for fire crews in Pahoa and two portable monitors for the Fire Department’s hazardous materials team.

It has also set up new procedures with PGV to allow for immediate reporting of all incidents and is talking with DOH about adding two permanent monitors to the area.

Darryl Oliveira, county Civil Defense director, said those monitors would likely be paid for by the county’s geothermal asset fund since the state appears to be strapped for cash.

“If there’s an opportunity to help use that fund to help improve safety in the community, we would like to consider that as an option,” he said.

DOH used to have three monitors in the area but now only operates one.

The county is also looking at adding a new tone to the Civil Defense siren in Leilani Estates that would inform people of a problem at the plant, Oliveira said.

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

 

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