Geothermal Issue Heats Up Mayor’s Community Meeting
Mayor Billy Kenoi has resumed his “talk-story” sessions in communities around the island, and he received a raucous reception Monday night at the one in Pahoa.
Soon after the mayor arrived at the Pahoa Community Center, the meeting turned into a referendum about geothermal development, with many people questioning Kenoi about future geothermal plans in the Puna District.
The sprawling district contains the state’s only geothermal plant, Puna Geothermal Venture, which went online in 1993. There has been much discussion of late about expanding geothermal development in general, including possible plants in Kona and on Maui.
The meeting, which was also attended by all of the mayor’s department heads, attracted an overflow crowd of more than 150 people. It began with a quick run-down on the county’s fiscal state before Kenoi started taking questions from the audience.
The crowd became unruly at times with catcalls sometimes drowning out Kenoi and others speakers. The mayor used humor to diffuse some situations and occasionally admonished the crowd to “use aloha and respect” and to let others besides geothermal protestors have a chance to speak.
The discussion became heated when Kenoi took exception to a comment from Pohoiki resident Robert Petricci that the geothermal industry and Kenoi were “out to destroy Puna.”
“What kind of accusation is that?” the mayor responded. Kenoi noted that he was born and raised in Kalapana and said he has always had the welfare of the Puna District at heart.
Kenoi talked about how his career as an attorney included stints with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., where he helped stop a spaceport proposed for Ka‘u in the early 1990s, and for the Public Defender’s office.
“I worked for the public interest my whole life,” he said. “I never worked for corporate America.”
Some in the audience said geothermal developers haven’t been up front about their plans. In response, Kenoi noted that any such proposals, including those for a undersea cable to move electricity between islands, are in very early stages, and that it isn’t clear yet what is being planned.
“Nobody’s doing anything behind your back,” he said.
One of the exchanges was with Aurora Martinovich, who has long been one of the closest neighbors to the Puna Geothermal Plant in Pohoiki. Martinovich said for the past five years she has been trying unsuccessfully to take part in the program funded by royalties paid by PGV to relocate neighbors who wish to move away.
Kenoi said his administration has been trying to reach Martinovich about the matter.
“I know, y’all been trying to call me for four years,” Martinovich said dryly to laughs from the audience.
Kenoi told her that he would have Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd work out the details.
Some of the speakers were critical of Kenoi’s upcoming trip to the Philippines to see that nation’s geothermal industry at work.
“You don’t need to go to the Philippines to find out about geothermal, come to my house … and you can see what it’s like to be near a drill rig running 24 hours a day,” Martinovich said.
“In theory, (geothermal) is beautiful, in reality it’s not,” she said.
Many of those speaking questioned Kenoi on future development plans for geothermal and insisted that alternate forms of energy such as solar and wind take precedence.
Kenoi said that while geothermal represents the greatest potential, his administration has been pursuing other forms of alternate energy.
“Our energy costs are out of control,” he said.
He noted the county’s recent efforts include greater use of photovoltaic panels, many of which have been placed on county buildings in Hilo and Kona and on all new county police and fire stations.
According to county officials, the 250-kilowatt system on the West Hawaii Civic Center provides all the power needed during the day by the 80,000-square-foot structure and will soon be charging electric cars being purchased by the county.
Kenoi also fielded other questions dealing with such matters as park use, bus service and roaming dogs.
“I’m very happy with what you’ve been doing lately,” Cheryl Adler of Kalapana told Kenoi, before asking the mayor to reconsider his recent decision to pull county funding for the management of the lava viewing area in Kalapana. Kenoi told her that as the situation there changes – and lava is currently making its way toward the area and coastline – the county can make “adjustments.”
Additional talk-story sessions with Kenoi and his cabinet are scheduled for Thursday in Waikoloa; Monday in Naalehu; and Friday, March 23, in Waimea. All start at 6 p.m.