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County Council to consider proposed lower Puna water study examining possible health impacts of geothermal operations

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The Hawai‘i County Council on March 20 will consider a resolution seeking a water quality study of lower Puna to continue work started in 2012 by a fact-finding group organized by then-Mayor Billy Kenoi to examine health impacts of geothermal operations on the Big Island.

Puna Geothermal Venture. (File photo courtesy of Hawaiian Electric)

The Council voted 8-0, with Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy absent, during a March 5 meeting of its Finance Committee to forward Resolution 443, introduced by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, with a favorable recommendation.

The measure would fund $428,000 from the county’s geothermal relocation and community benefits fund, or what Kierkiewicz referred to as geothermal royalties, for a U.S. Geological Survey study looking at potential effects geothermal energy production could have on lower Puna’s drinking water and the near-ocean environment.

It also would be a joint funding agreement between the county and USGS. Kierkiewicz explained that the federal agency will kick in some money so the county doesn’t have to fund everything with geothermal royalties.

The study would be aimed at determining if there are impacts to the watershed — which could impact public health — related to that energy production.

“This resolution is not about being pro-geothermal or anti-geothermal,” said Kierkiewicz during the Finance Committee meeting. “Decisions impacting public health and safety should never be political. It’s about the need for useful information and more definitive studies.”


The goal of the task force convened by Kenoi more than about 12 years ago was three-fold.

The study group was to identify public health questions, create a reliable inventory of studies addressing concerns and to serve as references for decision-makers and recommend priorities and methodologies for future scientific and monitoring studies, all relating to geothermal energy production.

That resulted in the 2013 Geothermal Public Health Assessment, which found that Puna’s public health profile is unclear, health studies are needed and geothermal operations carry health risks. However, Kierkiewicz said to what extent remains unresolved.

The report also had eight recommendations, including a request to do a health study, the need for a more robust monitoring system and strengthening communications with the community surrounding the island’s and state’s only geothermal operation at Puna Geothermal Venture, located east of Leilani Estates.

It suggested the USGS be commissioned to do a study as well. The federal agency collected water samples in 2015 and 2020.


As far as Kierkiewicz knows, those were the only actions taken by the county to implement the 2013 assessment.

“In response to ongoing public health and environmental concerns raised by my community, our office is initiating a comprehensive groundwater study by the USGS,” she said. “This study … aims to build on the previous assessments by sampling more sites and conducting more analysis over the course of the study.”

The key is differentiating between naturally occurring impacts on the groundwater from volcanic activity such as eruptions, which lower Puna has experienced two of in the past decade, and what is being catalyzed by Puna Geothermal Venture.

“We don’t have rivers in lower Puna other than rivers of lava, but we have a freshwater lens that sits on top of seawater, just under the surface of the ground,” said Paul Kuykendall, co-founder of the Waihu O Puna Makai Watershed Coalition and Pohoiki Road farmer, in his testimony in support of Resolution 443 during the committee meeting. “This freshwater lens, which sits below very porous rock, supplies water for our homes and farms through private wells and eventually close to the shore, where it fills ponds and springs and flows into the near-ocean environment.”

That freshwater carries nutrients crucial to fish in the nearshore reefs and endemic shrimp living in the ponds. Kuykendall said when geothermal steam or brine are released at or near the surface, heavy metals and other contaminants seep into the ground and flow directly into the freshwater lens, negatively impacting people, plants, animals and fish.


His group and other community members are concerned about the watershed being contaminated, and unfortunately, the 2015 USGS study did not provide sufficient evidence to confirm or rule out any adverse effects from geothermal energy production.

Kuykendall said the proposed new study will help establish a baseline for water quality data in lower Puna and inform plans for regular water quality monitoring in the future.

Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz

What excites Kierkiewicz the most about the proposed study, however, is that community members will accompany USGS scientists in the field and be part of the water sampling collection. That will build observational learning, capacity within the scientific processes and use of instrumentation and ensure credibility, transparency and community trust in the study process.

“We are creating indigenous data scientists through this project that can work with USGS in the long term for ongoing monitoring,” she said.

Three people have been identified to accompany USGS staff into the field during at least the first phase of water sampling of the proposed study: Kuykendall, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo master’s student Hannah Hartmann and Annamarie Kon, executive director of nonprofit Nā Maka Hāloa.

The study would be done in two phases, one during the wet season and another during the dry season, to capture the seasonality of the watershed system and determine if there is any variability in the water sample results between the two, said Stephen Zahniser, deputy center director for the USGS Pacific Islands Water Science Center in Honolulu, during the March 5 committee meeting.

There will be roughly 2 to 4 months between water sample collections from 6 to 8 sites identified by the community and when the analyses of those samples are returned. That time frame will be the same for both phases.

Data will be released between 7 and 9 months after samples are taken because of review and quality checks. After both phases are complete, the data from each will be combined into one scientific investigation report, which is much deeper and requires more interpretation and narrative.

That will then go through the USGS publications networks and should be released to the public between 24 and 27 months after the study begins.

Throughout the entire process, the community will continue to be engaged, Zahniser said, including occasional check-ins to talk about some of the interim results. He added that will keep the corridor of communication wide open.

Not only would the new study build on data sets already collected in 2015 and 2020, but it will be somewhat more targeted and also look for specific contaminants from geothermal energy production, including rare metals such as mercury.

While there were several questions from council members about the proposed study, all of them were in support. The vast majority of those who testified in person or submitted written testimony also agreed with the council, including a Puna Geothermal representative.

Mike Kaleikini, senior Director of Hawai‘i Affairs for Ormat, the parent company of the Big Island geothermal power plant, said PGV strongly supports Resolution 443 and the study it proposes. The plant was a member of the 2012 task force and fully backed the recommendations in the subsequent 2013 assessment.

“We 100% will provide whatever support [and] information we can to help this process go along. We welcome the study because we want to make sure we’re doing what is right. We feel we are doing that, but it’s always good to confirm with these studies,” said Kaleikini, adding that Puna Geothermal already does extensive monitoring of water and air quality along with other regular testing required by the Hawai‘i Department of Health, Hawai‘i County and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Zahniser said the USGS looks forward to being involved in the study to produce data important for decision-makers. He added that working directly with the community will only increase the transparency of the process.

The March 20 regular meeting of the council begins at 9 a.m. and will be conducted at the West Hawai‘i Civic Center in Kona. The meeting will also be available live online.

For more information about where you can watch in person or submit written or in-person testimony on Resolution 443 or any other items on the council’s March 20 agenda, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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