Hawaii has some hazy days.

Not in the L.A. sense of a smoggy bubble constantly looming overhead. It’s more an occasional thing. Every so often something in the sky smears the sun as it drifts over the state’s green-velvet mountains.

Many residents describe these allergy-infuriating days as voggy, due to the primary cause being a Big Island volcano spewing sulphuric steam. There are good days and bad, depending on wind and weather patterns.

Health concerns aside, the federal government says it has to do something about this unsightly situation since the state failed to remedy it. Putting a lid on one of the world’s most active volcanoes is out of the question, so the Environmental Protection Agency is focusing on the man-made causes.

The agency has proposed a Regional Haze Federal Implementation Plan for Hawaii that could force certain oil refineries to burn cleaner fuel with the aim of improving visibility at nearby national parks.

This may cost power plants on the Big Island millions of dollars extra each year. But EPA officials say the electric company could meet the proposed requirements just by staying on track with its move toward more renewable fuel sources as directed by the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.

“It’s obvious that the volcano causes most of the haze,” said Kerry Drake, EPA Region 9 Air Division associate director. “But if the volcano wasn’t erupting, these regional haze plans are really meant to put us on a path toward no man-made impacts to visibility by 2064.”

The agency has identified a provision in the Clean Air Act concerning “reasonable progress towards the national goal of preventing any future and remedying any existing man-made impairment in mandatory Class I areas.” Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes national parks on Maui and Hawaii islands, respectively, fall under this realm.

The EPA held a public hearing Thursday in Kahului and will hold another Friday in Hilo on its proposed haze plan. The public has until July 2 to comment, and the EPA has until Aug. 14 to finalize its action plan.

The agency defines regional haze as “visibility impairment caused by the cumulative air pollutant emissions from numerous sources over a wide geographic area.” This haze obscures the scenery at a distance and reduces the beauty of national parks, EPA officials said.

Switch to Cleaner Fuel Could Cost $4.7M Annually

The plan calls for imposing a cap on pollution from certain oil-fired power plants on the Big Island. Maui is off the hook because projections show its sulphur dioxide levels are declining.

EPA determined Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s Kanoelehua Hill facility — by far the biggest source of industrial sulphur dioxide on the Big Island — is the power plant that needs to make some changes.

The agency said the Hawaiian Electric Co., which owns HELCO, cost estimate of up to $7,363 per ton to switch to a residual fuel with half as much sulphur content was too high in light of available market data.

The EPA’s analysis says the switch to the cleaner fuel would reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 851 tons annually and cost the company more than $4.7 million per year, which puts the cost effectiveness at $5,600 a ton.

HECO, on behalf of HELCO and the Maui Electric Co., has objected to the plan for at least the past five months. But a HECO spokesperson said the company remains committed to complying.

“We’re doing what we can within the utility’s capability, but we can’t control what’s happening with the volcano,” Sharon Higa said Thursday.

Kilauea Volcano, perhaps the world’s most active volcano, has been erupting since 1983 along the east rift zone, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

HECO is already working to meet the state’s energy goals, Higa added.

The Clean Energy Initiative’s goal is meeting 70 percent of the state’s energy needs through energy efficiency and renewable energy by 2030. Hawaii also passed a law in 2009 that calls for 30 percent reduction in the state’s energy use via efficiency and increases the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030.

Drake called Hawaii’s energy goals “ambitious,” and said the EPA just wants to help the state along.

“The fact is that the fuel oil that Hawaii utilities use has a lot of sulphur which contributes to haze,” he said.

Brenner Munger, who manages HECO’s environmental department, wrote a letter Jan. 27 to Thomas Webb, who works in the EPA’s Region 9 Air Division, that points at the projected cost increases and the volcano being the predominant source of haze.

He said the electric companies want to reiterate that the “sheer magnitude” of emissions from Kilauea Volcano should be considered before the EPA makes its determination. He called the cost controls “excessive” and “well above” the norm.

The proposed regional haze plan estimates that the volcano causes some 90 percent of the visibility impairment at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and some 60 percent of the visibility impairment at Haleakala National Park on the worst days. Sea spray and international transport are also contributors.

EPA spokesperson Dean Higuchi said the proposed requirements are “reasonable.”

“There could be significant costs to implement control technologies that may not necessarily improve visibility at the national parks, if the FIP is implemented as proposed,” HECO spokesperson Darren Pai said. “We are still evaluating our options and are committed to doing the right thing to comply.”

Impetus for Action

The EPA determined Jan. 15, 2009, that Hawaii had failed to submit a state implementation plan that addressed any of the required regional haze elements. When this happens, by law the feds have to do their own plan within two years.

Drake said Hawaii officials have been working with the EPA but lacked the “capacity” to meet the requirement.

The EPA is doing similar haze plans throughout the country. By law, the EPA and other federal agencies are required to develop and implement air quality protection plans to reduce the pollution that impairs visibility in 156 national parks and wilderness areas. These agencies have been monitoring visibility in these areas since 1988, and the regional haze rule took effect in 1999.

Robert Harris of the Hawaii Sierra Club said the environmental group supports aggressive regulations of clean air.

“It’s fundamentally important,” he said. “But beyond the visibility, these things do have some health repercussions.”

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