Editor’s Note: Mililani Trask is a candidate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Media reports about the health study commissioned by Mayor Billy Kenoi remind us that advancing geothermal energy must go hand in hand with public safety and well-being. Objective, informed attention to health, the use of new clean technology to address known hazards and the smart development of our geothermal resources to get us off our $6 billion addiction to imported oil can, and should happen simultaneously. Let’s revisit where we are now:

Federal Investigation finds no health hazard

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted an investigation in the Puna District at the request of the Hawaii Department of Health. The report, signed by Dr. Kenneth Orloff, concluded that “the concentrations of hydrogen sulfide detected in air at monitoring stations in residential areas near the Puna Geothermal Venture do not pose a health hazard.”

volcano geothermal


Validity of the Studies

Neither the State nor Federal oversight agencies with authority have acted to gather data or initiate an investigation into the health problems in Puna for the past several years. The 1997 report observed that “On site, high air levels of hydrogen sulfide were detected (0-8,800 ppb), as well as high concentrations of other contaminants. Therefore, it cannot be determined whether the effects observed in this study were due to hydrogen sulfide or to other chemicals from the site. To date, no epidemiological study has demonstrated that chronic exposure to hydrogen sulfide at concentrations in the low ppb [parts per billion]range has caused adverse health effects.”

The “Geothermal Public Health Assessment Study Group,” led by conflict-resolution expert Peter Adler, has submitted findings based on conversations with a group that, in my opinion, does not adequately reflect the diversity of the community. I believe the absence of scientific and medical opinion in this study is also troubling.

Nature versus man-made activity

Tutu Pele spews out tons of sulfide. The emissions from the geothermal plant are a fraction of what comes out naturally from the volcano. The one case that made it to court – Gap vs PGV —alleged that the plaintiff suffered from asthma due to emissions from the plant. This case failed to win support from the plaintiff’s own doctors. The doctors said they were unable to point to specific causation, that other factors such as plants, trees and allergies could cause the symptoms and that the plaintiff suffered from anxiety because she had a “belief” that she lived in a toxic environment. Gap lost her case and sanctions were levied on her.

Old technology vs new technology

Technology in the geothermal field has progressed in ways not unlike the development of car technology. We have seen many significant improvements in automobile engineering.

The same is true of geothermal systems. Today’s technology is newer, cleaner and safer. Clean state-of-the-art technology can be identified for use in Hawaii. Many modern plants use Japanese-made turbines with components that can be upgraded as new technology is developed.

That is the approach advocated by Innovations Development Group which uses my services as a consultant to understand community sentiment and propose approaches that protect the public interest. Solutions exist right now for some of the problems described. It is worth noting that Ormat has apparently now installed scrubbers that will remove toxic agents from fumes before venting. There is a cost to using state-of-the-art technology that developers must be prepared to bear for the good of the community.

No Fracking: Hawaii County Already Has Laws in Place

There has been some talk about the need to pass anti-fracking laws. This is a red herring. Hawaii island has enacted its own ordinance to protect the county under its Home Rule authority. Wally Ishibashi, Co-Chair of the Geothermal Working Group and labor representative on Hawaii Island Geothermal Alliance (HIGA) who has been involved with the issue since the 1980s, has gone on record to point out that state legislation is not needed given what the county has already done on its own.

Arguing against fracking is a distraction when experts have already stated that fracking is not part of the geothermal picture in Hawaii. That discussion needlessly keeps us from moving the ball forward on geothermal development in a responsible, safe and community-friendly way.

Geothermal is the only industry providing revenues for community benefits.

It is worth noting that geothermal is the only industry providing revenues that contribute to county, state and OHA coffers for community purposes such as buses, road repair and health studies.

We are reaching a tipping point with regard to how we respond to our dangerous vulnerability on energy. The DBEDT’s strongly worded response to HECO’s Power Supply Improvement Plan is perhaps the most telling addition to the gathering chorus of voices calling for an end to monopolistic practices and the pursuit of profit at the expense of the community.

We can do better. We must do better. That can only happen if we deal in facts.

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