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Vote Precursor to Study of Geothermal Health Effects

January 9, 2014, 3:45 PM HST (Updated January 9, 2014, 4:52 PM)
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The county’s Windward Planning Commission today voted unanimously to set in motion the process designed to create a comprehensive study of the health effects of geothermal development in lower Puna.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to hire a claims adjuster who will assess current and future claims against the county’s Geothermal Asset Fund.

The fund created by a 1995 county ordinance consists of funds paid by Puna Geothermal Venture for the purpose of “compensating persons impacted by geothermal energy development activities.”

Puna Geothermal Venture currently produces 38 megawatts of electricity from its plant in Pohoiki.

The current claims consist of a handful of “geothermal impact mitigation projects” approved by the community-based Geothermal Public Health Assessment Study Group, which compiled a report last year.

They include:

  • $180,000 for the county Civil Defense Agency to purchase air-quality monitors in addition to those already used by it, the state Department of Health and PGV, with some of the new monitors to be provided to members of the community under a pilot program
  • $45,000 to contract with the US Geological Survey to conduct sampling of existing wells and selected warm ponds along the Lower Puna coast to test for the presence of chemicals used in the geothermal energy process
  • $55,000 for the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine to analyze existing published studies of the impacts of hydrogen sulfide
  • $25,000 to conduct an enhanced Environmental Site Assessment of the geothermal brine ponds at the site of the former HGP-A, the first geothermal test project in Pohoiki which operated from 1982 to 1990.

The projects are designed to be a precursor for a detailed, peer-reviewed study of the health impacts from geothermal development.

The hiring of the adjuster is required under the rules governing the use of the asset fund.

The county also anticipates future claims against the fund from members of the community, depending on the findings of the broad-based health study.

Mayor Billy Kenoi spoke briefly today before the commissioners, saying that he supports both the interim projects and the comprehensive health study.

“A lot of questions have been asked, very reasonable questions,” he said.

Mayor Billy Kenoi today endorsed an increase in a air-quality monitoring as well as study of health effects of geothermal development. Photo by Dave Smith.

Mayor Billy Kenoi today said he was in favor of increased air-quality monitoring as well as study of health effects of geothermal development. Photo by Dave Smith.

Kenoi said that although he was told by state health officials that additional air-quality monitoring was not needed, he believes it’s better to have more data rather than less.

“We want to err on the side of caution,” he said, adding that public health safety is “paramount.”

Some of the 14 people testifying before the commission today said while they agreed the projects were worthwhile, they were concerned that there might not be enough funding left in the asset fund for the comprehensive study.

“We just keep pushing (the study) down the road,” said longtime area resident Robert Petricci.

Another lower Puna resident, Steve Phillips, said the study should have been done long ago.

“It never was the job of the asset fund to do what the government should be doing,” Phillips said.

Others testified that the study is needed more than ever because of plans by Hawaii Electric Light Co. to increase the amount of geothermal-produced electricity in the Big Island utility’s grid.

Depending on the findings of the claims adjuster, the commission at a later date will take up authorization of funding for the mitigation projects as well as the health study.

This is the county’s second attempt at funding a health study.

In June 2012, the County Council approved a bill that would have earmarked the county’s Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Fund for uses such as a health study and additional air monitoring.

However, the bill was vetoed by Kenoi, who said that was not an appropriate use of that funding source, and that such activities should be paid for out of the asset fund.

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