By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii County has purchased additional air monitors for the Fire Department to help detect the release of hydrogen sulfide at Puna Geothermal Venture.
The purchases include eight hand-held devices and two larger monitors that can be placed at a location to take continual readings, said Darryl Oliveira, county Civil Defense director.
The hand-held monitors have been ordered and will be delivered to the Pahoa, Hawaiian Paradise Park and Keaau stations shortly, he said.
They cost about $4,500 in total and are covered by funds from the county Research and Development Department.
The two portable monitors cost about $185,000 in total, Oliveira said, and are in the process of being procured. The cost is covered by a Homeland Security grant.
The geothermal power plant has three monitors on its perimeter in Pohoiki and the state Department of Health also has one in the area.
The DOH used to have three near the plant, but two were removed in the last few years due to funding constraints, Lisa Young, an environmental health specialist with the agency, told the Tribune-Herald last August.
Oliveira said the additional monitors will help ensure that emergency responders are not walking into a hazardous situation. They can also provide additional readings for regulators.
The move for more monitoring follows the release of about six pounds of hydrogen sulfide at PGV in March.
The release occurred during an automatic shutdown when a transmission line was tripped.
PGV detected a peak reading of 0.019 parts per million during the March 13 event.
But the Fire Department detected readings as high as 3 ppm outside the plant, causing some in the Pohoiki community to question whether monitoring at the plant is adequate.
“You are saying a lot of things,” Bob Petricci, a geothermal critic, said to PGV staff during a community meeting in Pahoa on Wednesday evening.
“You don’t have good information as far as I can tell.”
PGV, owned by Ormat Technologies, is allowed to release up to 25 parts per billion (0.025 ppm) on an average hourly basis without violating its permit.
The gas becomes immediately dangerous to health at 100 ppm, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Lower levels can irritate eyes and lungs, and OSHA limits workplace exposure to 20 ppm.
Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaiian affairs for Ormat Technologies, acknowledged that the monitors will not always catch the highest reading.
“The fact is the H2S (hydrogen sulfide) can travel between stations,” he said. “We are reporting off those stations.”
The number of monitors and their locations are determined by the Health Department, Kaleikini said.
PGV also had a small release of hydrogen sulfide on April 4 when a pump malfunctioned. Rick DuVoisin, PGV’s hydrogen sulfide training coordinator, estimated that less than a pound escaped.
On May 29, a passersby reported a rotten egg odor typically associated with the gas. The Fire Department responded and no elevated levels were detected.
Some might have escaped when maintenance was being performed on a pipe, Kaleikini said.
The plant on average releases no more than 10 pounds of hydrogen sulfide a year, DuVoisin said.
Kaleikini said PGV has had one release, in 2005, that exceeded its permit. That does not include a well blowout in 1991 before commercial operations began that resulted in steam being released uncontrolled for 31 hours.
He also said PGV is supportive of having more monitors in the community, but didn’t indicate the company is looking to add any on its property.
In addition to the new monitors that have been purchased for the Fire Department, Oliveira said he is also looking at acquiring a few hand-held monitors for nearby residents to use.
Those would be paid for through the county’s Geothermal Asset Fund, which PGV pays into.
Kaleikini said the company is in favor of the idea, and is also offering to make monitors available for the Fire Department to use.
“We support helping out the community,” he said.
Oliveira said the county would need to provide training for use of the devices, noting that he prefers that people use them to get to safe areas rather than search for high readings.
“My biggest fear is we get a release and they want to go to find the source, and they will be walking into something rather than walking away from something,” he said.
“We want them to have confidence and trust in the monitoring,” Oliveira added.
Additionally, he said he is looking establishing more fixed monitors.
They cost about $95,000 a piece, and while the Health Department has little if any funds for such a purchase, Oliveria said he is looking for help from other state departments.
“I’m being very careful not to over obligate the county,” he said.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.