A production well at a geothermal plant threatened by lava flow from the Kilauea volcano has been sealed with a mud-like substance after it failed to respond to other attempts to depressurize it.

Officials are monitoring the seal for leaks to determine whether it was applied successfully. Meanwhile, authorities say the plant’s 10 other wells have been properly depressurized to prevent toxic gases from wafting out after lava entered, then stalled, on the property near one of the new volcanic vents.

“Right now, they’re in a safe state,” Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for the Puna Geothermal Venture plant, said Tuesday of the wells.

The entrance to the Puna Geothermal Venture plant. So far a natural berm is keeping lava away. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Thomas Travis, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said during a press conference that the status of the wells is “stable, predictable and understandable.” But he added, “there are many unpredictable things that could happen.” What could happen if lava flows over a well, “isn’t something that’s been experimented with.”

The lava, stalled by a natural berm, remains 200 to 300 meters from the wells.

Authorities haven’t yet decided whether to install metal plugs in the wells as an additional stopgap measure.

“We are ready to start installing plugs, but to install a plug … you need to open the two master valves and lower the plug into the well,” Travis said. “That means that for a period of time the well has less integrity than it has right now. So, if there is a possibility of risk that would cause us to abandon the work, then I am not going to proceed with plugging the wells.”

Workers have so far been forced to abandon the site on two days due to high levels of sulfur dioxide in the air.

The wells run as deep as 8,000 feet underground at the plant, which covers around 40 acres of the 815-acre property. The plant has capacity to produce 38 megawatts of electricity, providing roughly one-quarter of the Big Island’s daily energy demand.

Lava destroyed a building near the plant, bringing the total number of structures overtaken in the past several weeks to nearly 50, including dozens of homes. The latest was a warehouse adjacent to the Puna plant that was covered by lava Monday night, Hawaii County spokeswoman Janet Snyder told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The building was owned by the state of Hawaii, and was used in geothermal research projects in the early days of the site.

Puna Geothermal, owned by Nevada’s Ormat Technologies, was shut down shortly after Kilauea began spewing lava May 3. The plant harnesses heat and steam from the earth’s core to spin turbines to generate power. A flammable gas called pentane is used as part of the process, though officials earlier this month removed 50,000 gallons of the gas from the plant to reduce the chance of explosions.

Some Native Hawaiians have expressed frustration with the plant since it came online in 1989, saying it is built on sacred land. Pele, the goddess of fire, is believed to live on Kilauea volcano, and the plant itself is thought to desecrate her name. Other residents have voiced concerns over health and safety.

Scientists, however, say the conditions on Kilauea make it a good site for harnessing the earth for renewable energy.

“There’s heat beneath the ground if you dig deep enough everywhere,” said Laura Wisland, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But in some places, “it’s just hotter, and you can access the geothermal energy more easily.”

Geothermal energy is also considered a clean resource as it doesn’t generate greenhouse gas emissions, said Bridget Ayling, the director of Nevada’s Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy.

Ormat said in a May 15 statement that there was a low risk of surface lava making its way to the facility. The company also said there was no damage to the facilities above-ground and that it was continuing to assess the impact.

Puna Geothermal represents about 4.5 percent of Ormat’s worldwide generating capacity. Last year, the Hawaii plant generated about $11 million of net income for the company. Ormat is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and shares have fallen nearly 10 percent since Kilauea began erupting.

Kaleikini said the gases that could potentially leak from the Puna plant are no different from those coming from active fissures.

In this Saturday, May 19, 2018, photo released by the U.S. Geological Survey, lava flows from fissures near Pahoa, Hawaii. Kilauea volcano began erupting more than two weeks ago and has burned dozens of homes, forced people to flee and shot up plumes of steam from its summit that led officials to distribute face masks to protect against ash particles. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)
In this Saturday photo released by the U.S. Geological Survey, lava flows from fissures near Pahoa. USGS

The U.S. Geological Survey said sulfur dioxide emissions from the volcano have more than doubled since the current eruption began. Kilauea’s summit is now belching 15,000 tons of the gas each day, up from 6,000 tons daily prior to the May 3 eruption.

The volcano’s Puu Oo crater was releasing 200 to 300 tons a day but is no longer emitting sulfur dioxide.

Scientists say lava from Kilauea is causing explosions as it enters the ocean, which can look like fireworks. When lava hits the sea and cools, it breaks apart and sends fragments flying into the air, which could land on boats in the water, said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall.

Kilauea sparked new safety warnings Monday about toxic gas on the Big Island’s southern coastline after lava flowing into the ocean set off a chemical reaction. Large steam plumes created lava haze, or “laze,” laced with hydrochloric acid and fine glass shards when it flowed into the sea.

It’s just the latest hazard from an eruption that has so far generated earthquakes and featured gushing molten rock, giant ash plumes and sulfur dioxide. There has been continuous low-level ash emission from Kilauea’s summit, with larger explosions every few hours, said U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Mike Poland.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Authors