Mayor vetoes geothermal bills


By PETER SUR

Tribune-Herald staff writer

A pair of bills relating to geothermal energy have died on Mayor Billy Kenoi’s desk, unless the County Council can engineer an override of the veto.

Both bills generated tremendous public testimony prior to their passage by the County Council last month. Kenoi’s veto messages described both as unnecessary legislation.

One bill would have required the county Civil Defense Agency to prepare an emergency response and evacuation plan for geothermal facilities and to submit it to the County Council for approval by Aug. 1. The bill is aimed at people living near Puna Geothermal Venture. The bill would have allowed the administration to ask for a 90-day extension to write the plan.

Kenoi’s veto message for the Civil Defense bill states that first responders already have a plan for all emergency situations, including geothermal, based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency-developed incident command system.

“Since effective plans are already in place, there is no need for a new plan,” Kenoi wrote.

Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who introduced both bills, said he was disappointed with the mayor’s action.

“In my estimation, that’s playing politics with people’s lives,” he said.

Councilwoman Brenda Ford said residents of lower Puna should have an idea of what to do in the event of a geothermal mishap.

“The community needs a plan on what to do, and they need guidance from the county on how to respond to a disaster,” he said. “You know, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. That has not occurred, and I am supportive of that type of community evacuation plan being designed by the county and delivered to all the residents so that they know what to do.”

Ford said the county uses its incident command system “beautifully,” but “the average citizen hasn’t a clue what to do.”

A community evacuation plan would help in that situation, she said.

The other vetoed bill, which would affect people in lower Puna, would have renamed the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Program to the Geothermal Relocation and Public Safety Program, although it’s popularly known as the “geothermal royalties” fund.

This bill would have redirected money from the community benefits program into uses that relate to public health and safety, including air quality monitoring and a public notification system. It would also have made eligible for relocation all homes within a mile of Puna Geothermal Venture.

“The thought that the county would not let us use money to determine what is making these people ill is the most egregious, lack of concern and compassion I have ever heard of,” Ford said. “These people are not making up these illnesses.

“Now, I do not know what is causing it,” Ford said. “They’ve got problems and nobody’s looking at it. … They’ve got very unusual illnesses.

Kenoi’s message to the council says the bill duplicates the purpose of the $2.1 million Geothermal Asset Fund, which is dedicated to funding public health and safety mitigation measures.

Kenoi also wrote that a “significant number” of people who have seen community benefits from PGV would like to see those benefits continue. But Ford said there were “far more people” who supported the bill than opposed it. She pegged the number of supporters at 60 to 70 percent of those who testified.

Kenoi wrote that the bill would result in lower tax revenues for Hawaii County by acquiring and holding homes from people who wish to be relocated, and liability issues that would arise from those vacant homes.

“It would be irresponsible for me to sign (the bill) into law due to its legal and technical flaws and because it is unnecessary,” Kenoi wrote.

But his critics think otherwise.

“Is he saying that health studies are inappropriate? Is he saying that the people of Puna are making these stories up?” Yagong asked.

Kenoi said that’s not the issue.

“The goals of protecting public health, safety and doing a thorough, comprehensive health study, we can already achieve through existing legislation and authority,” he said, and said the county was going to conduct a “thorough, open, transparent and community-involved study with health care professionals, independent researchers who have already inquired. … We’ll go to the community to address those goals.”

“We don’t believe this legislation is based on good science, good authority,” Kenoi wrote. “There’s too much ambiguity, and the first hurdle in signing any piece of legislation is a good law. And unfortunately this legislation has too many flaws.”

The County Council approved the evacuation plan bill by a 7-2 vote and the relocation and public safety bill by a 6-3 vote. Yagong has not indicated whether he would call for a veto override.

Email Peter Sur at psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com.