By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Recent thefts of unattended equipment have impacted scientists’ ability to monitor and predict volcanic activity in Puna.
Jim Kauahikaua, scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), said Tuesday that the thefts have targeted solar paneling and other equipment used to recharge batteries of seismic monitoring devices located on private or state property.
“This leaves us with very few instruments in the East Rift Zone,” he said. “There’s very little left to detect change in the volcanic activity right in that area. … One big worry is that magma will erupt up- or downrift, and with the thefts, we have less to show us what’s happening downrift of Pu‘u O‘o.”
He added that the affected area, between Pu‘u O‘o and Kumukahi, is one of Puna’s more heavily populated areas, with the thefts presenting a safety issue similar to that caused by someone stealing or vandalizing warning system buoys that can predict tsunamis.
“I’ve already notified Civil Defense that our ability to monitor any change in volcanic activity in the area downrift of Pu‘u O‘o has been affected,” he said.
Within the last year, he said, two stations that housed devices known as “borehole tiltmeters,” which are used to measure the slope of the ground at any given moment and transmit that information, were stripped of their solar panels, batteries and radio communication equipment. At one site, the tiltmeter itself — which is valued at about $13,000 — was pulled from the ground and taken.
“That really had us scratching our heads. It’s a specific piece of equipment. … it’s hard to imagine that it’s worth more than the cost of scrap metal to the thieves,” he said.
As for the solar equipment, Kauahikaua believes that the thieves have specifically targed it, either for sale or their own use.
“Somebody is monitoring the site. They’ve come back after we made repairs and replaced equipment. We can see that they’re either coming on foot or by vehicle on the seismometer. We can record their footfalls,” he said. “They’re coming at night, when no one is there.”
The combined cost of the thefts has been estimated at about $40,000, but when added to the costs associated with attempts to protect the sites and the planning and installation involved, the cost to taxpayers can balloon to about $100,000. Because the equipment was paid for with federal funds, the FBI has been notified, Kauahikaua said.
HVO’s ability to replace the stolen equipment is limited, he added, with the recent federal sequestration budget cuts providing an additional obstacle.
“The sequester has really limited our ability to replace the instruments,” he said. “We’re not in a great place at the moment. But, we’re doing our best. We’re trying various things, we just don’t have the same options that we did a year or two ago.”
Capt. Robert Wagner, with the Hawaii County Police Department, said that such thefts of solar equipment are more common in less populated areas of the island.
“You have to look at the locations of their equipment in an isolated area where there’s nothing around except for the equipment,” he said. “You have a lot of people there that are off grid entirely, and it (solar paneling) becomes a hot item for certain people. … I used to work in Puna. I’ve seen whole homes where all the panels have been removed.”
On Tuesday, Hawaii Island police announced they were also investigating the theft of a solar photovoltaic system from MacKenzie State Park in Puna, sometime between April 26 and 28.
“One or more persons apparently climbed onto the roof of the park’s new bathrooms and removed the panels and then cut a heavy duty chain link fence, gaining access to the control box and a water pump. Total value of the items stolen and damaged was more than $5,000,” reads a press release issued by police.
Capt. Reed Mahuna of the Puna division said Tuesday that the thieves clearly have some electrical experience.
“They need special knowledge to take these things apart. Knowledge the average lay person wouldn’t have. I know I wouldn’t know how to do it,” he said. “But it’s not that easy to sell openly. Someone who suddenly has 20 solar panels in their back yard, it’s not that easy to just put it up on Craigslist.”
Mahuna asked that anyone who may have noticed anythign out of the ordinary or have any information related to the missing solar equipment call Officer Joseph Passmore at 965-2716.
Meanwhile, as a result of the thefts, HVO scientists have concluded that continuing to maintain expensive instruments in unsupervised, isolated areas is unsustainable. They are now looking for cheaper alternative solutions, like relying on members of the public to play host to GPS instruments in their yards.
For more information or to volunteer to host equipment in your yard, contact HVO at 967-8804.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.