Blame the volcano goddess.

Hawaiian Electric Co. has paid a prominent volcanologist to tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Madame Pele is causing the haze over Hawaii.

The utility commissioned the $25,000 scientific report to state what it says is the obvious: Kilauea Volcano is the overwhelming source of sulfur dioxide emissions soiling the sky. HECO hopes the study spurs the EPA to reconsider its approach in developing a regional haze plan for Hawaii that could cost the company millions of dollars in retrofitting technology.

“EPA’s draft Federal Implementation Plan does not include emissions from Kilauea for the natural visibility target of 2064 as their position is that the volcano could stop erupting at any time,” HECO spokeswoman Sharon Higa said in an email Friday. “This approach places the burden of improving visibility in the parks on human sources of atmospheric pollution, when the largest contributor to visibility degradation is the volcano.”

Federal law says protected Class I areas, which include national parks like Volcanoes on the Big Island and Haleakala on Maui, need to be on track to have no man-made impacts to visibility by 2064.

It doesn’t matter that the magma reservoir beneath the summit of Kilauea has remained active since the birth of the volcano some 500,000 years ago, as HECO’s new study says. Or that the volcano clearly has no plans to end its constant spewing of gases into the atmosphere, now measured at 100 to 500 metric tonnes per day.

“Our purpose for conducting the study was to demonstrate that the volcanic activity is not short-term and, regardless of its eruptive state, the volcano will continue to vent emissions,” Higa said. “In short, the volcano will continue to impact air quality, visibility and human life for future millennia.”

But the law is the law, and EPA’s rationale is to focus on what can actually be controlled. Can’t cap the volcano, so the agency plans to require Big Island oil refineries to burn cleaner fuel and possibly restrict a sugar company’s ability to burn cane in Maui fields.

HECO, which also owns Maui Electric Co., is trying to cushion the financial blow of any mandated changes by padding its position with John Lockwood’s 40-page report on the production of volcanic gases from Kilauea Volcano.

The public comment period ended July 2. Officials are reviewing the input from utility companies and concerned residents, EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi said Thursday. The agency expects to finalize its plan next month.

“Hawaiian Electric would like EPA to make an accurate determination of the natural visibility conditions for both the baseline (current conditions) and endpoint (2064) that takes into account emissions from the volcano,” Higa said. “We are continuing to evaluate our options that will comply with the Regional Haze Rule while serving the best interests of our customers, and await EPA’s final FIP due Sept. 14, 2012, before determining our next steps.”

Land Company Says Ag Burns Don’t Impact Visibility

Meantime, Friends of Haleakala National Park is using the same federal process to fight for stronger restrictions against the mass burning of excess sugar cane on Alexander & Baldwin property.

The nonprofit says the analysis and methodology used in the EPA’s regional haze report fails to adequately capture the impact of isolated effects on visibility.

“It is the nature of human perception to be acutely aware of changes in scenery that are not natural,” Friends of Haleakala National Park President Matt Wordeman said. “This situation is particularly true in the case of (Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company) agricultural burns. These events have a significant negative impact on the view from Haleakala National Park toward the West Maui Mountains and other surrounding areas.” HC&C is a subsidiary of A&B.

The group also takes issue with the EPA’s conclusion that “there is no evidence of agricultural burning contributing to haze.”

“That statement is too strong,” Wordeman said. “Even though no strong correlation was found, it is intuitively obvious that burning such large quantities of vegetation in close proximity to a Class I area will have some impact on the viewing quality.”

He called on the EPA to revise the plan to include a commitment to make further studies of the impact of ag burns and to limit these burns.

Sean O’Keefe, A&B’s environmental affairs director, told the EPA in a seven-page letter that the sugar mill and ag burning should not be subject to the regional haze plan because the impact is negligible.

He also took issue with the methodology EPA used in determining what actions would be necessary to progress from current to natural visibility conditions.

In particular, the land company said EPA took into account the impact of the volcano in one set of data but not another. The state Department of Health agrees with A&B and has proposed a more accurate way of representing the visibility conditions.

Check out A&B’s full response here:

Here’s Lockwood’s volcano study:

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