Crowd Blasts Geothermal at Special Council Meeting
by Dave Smith
Members of the County Council holding a special meeting on geothermal development heard six hours of testimony Tuesday night, nearly all of it critical.
About 300 people showed up for the meeting held at the Pahoa High & Intermediate School cafeteria, and 86 of them signed up to testify. Not all of those spoke as the crowd began to dwindle as the hours passed.
Only about a half-dozen spoke in favor of additional geothermal development, and most of those belonged to Innovations Development Group, a company made up of native Hawaiians that attempts to promote geothermal development in ways it says will assist indigenous people.
The meeting, which was held less than four miles from Puna Geothermal Venture, the state’s only facility actively generating electricity from wells producing geothermally heated steam, started off with a 90-minute presentation by representatives of Pele Defense Fund.
The group was active in the early days of geothermal development on the Big Island in the 1980s and 1990s, and has reformed in recent months in response to heightened interest for more geothermal activities lately on the Big Island, Maui and in the state Legislature.
As they had at a council meeting earlier this month, those critical of existing and further geothermal development at times cajoled, admonished and pleaded with council members to take action to stop further development, or at least impose regulations such as requiring that it be done outside of residential areas.
Council Chairman Dominic Yagong noted at the beginning of the meeting that the body does not currently have any geothermal legislation before it, and that the meeting was being held to promote community discussion of the issue.
Robert Petricci acted as principle spokesperson for the PDF Tuesday night. He told the seven council members present — Hilo councilmen Donald Ikeda and Dennis “Fresh” Onishi did not attend — that those living around the Puna Geothermal Venture plant have suffered health ailments and reduced property values.
Petricci said with the exception of lawsuits that resulted in changes in operating procedures and air-quality monitoring, their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. He pleaded with the council members to allow geothermal opponents a role in the development process.
“Just give us a seat at the table,” Petricci said.
He and others argued that other alternate energy sources, particularly solar, should be favored over further geothermal development.
The PDF presentation included a video made in 1989 in which PDF members and others argued that drilling for steam was an affront to the Hawaiian goddess Pele.
Other parts of the presentation included slide shows noting the various chemical components of the steam resource and their health effects, as well as numerous problems with leaks of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas.
Many mentioned the infamous 1991 blowout of PGV’s K-8 well that resulted in 31 hours of uncontrolled venting of steam. Some warned that if another blowout occurred, the porous nature of the geology in the Puna District might prevent the plant’s operators from stopping it.
“We could have a wild well on our hands,” said Jon Olson.
Olson said he and others are investigating why the county has not followed through on the establishment of an emergency response plan for such occurrences that he said has been mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
PDF member Aurora Martinovich, a Lanipuna Gardens subdivision resident who lives just outside PGV’s fence, said she is constantly bombarded by gas and noise which has affected the health of her daughter.
“It’s a toxic soup we’re dealing with,” she said. She said she is convinced that one of her neighbors died as a result of the emissions.
The PGV plant, Martinovich said, has not lived up to its billing.
“We were promised this would be a closed-circuit plant,” she said, referring to the cycle of using steam to turn turbines and then pumping the spent brine back underground.
“It is not,” she said.
Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s manager, told Big Island Now that the plant does use a closed system but problems do occur, especially when the island’s electrical grid shuts down, leaving PGV with a full head of steam and nowhere to send the electricity.
Kaleikini, who did not testify, said when that happens the plant’s operators are unable to immediately re-inject the steam underground, although there are processes that are used to mitigate the problem.
Those testifying in favor of further geothermal development included Mililani Trask, who previously served as an attorney for Pele Defense Fund but is now a member of Innovations Development Group.
Like other members of IDG testifying Tuesday, Trask was critical of the industry’s problems of the past, but said geothermal energy can be a positive force for the community if done right.
She said it isn’t right that PGV can generate power at a cost of 8 cents per kilowatt hour – as stated in a report from a geothermal working group – yet sells it to the public at more than 40 cents.
“The power’s benefits should be shared with the community,” she said.