PUNA, Hawaii Island — Puna Geothermal Venture is prepared for obliteration.

As of Monday, lava had hemmed in the geothermal plant on three sides, and was beginning to encroach on a well pad that contained four more wells. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s Tom Travis, a former geothermal opponent who’s now in charge of the efforts to seal the wells, said he found it “difficult for me to imagine” a scenario in which hydrogen sulfide could be released from the wells because of the lava — a major community concern.

PGV had produced 25 percent to 30 percent of the Big Island’s power capacity. Whether it ever will again may depend on how much farther the lava advances.

A portion of the Puna Geothermal Venture plant and encroaching lava seen from the air last week. Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency

Its representative, Mike Kaleikini, said Thursday it was “premature to speculate about our future plans,” but he added, “We definitely do not see this situation being the end for Puna Geothermal Venture.”

But some of the plant’s neighbors hope this really is the end. When photos appeared on Facebook, purporting to show lava overrunning the facility (they were actually buildings at a fish farm near the plant entrance), the comments of Lower Puna residents seemed anything but mournful.

“Take it all, Tutu Wahine, take it and seal it!” wrote Barabara Halalu Silva.

Pushing Geothermal

Since the 1960s, state and county officials have been touting geothermal power as a key to Hawaii’s energy future. They even proposed a 500-megawatt undersea cable to move electricity from geothermal plants on the Big Island to Oahu’s thirsty power grid.

During the 1980s, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye took to the floor in Congress for a speech in support of a new geothermal power plant, which he touted as an  “environmentally acceptable and economically feasible” way to “decrease our dependency on fossil fuel.”

That plant was never built.

When True Oil Company and Campbell Estate wanted to drill for a geothermal power plant in the Wao Kele O Puna rainforest, they met this reception. G. Brad Lewis

The state opened an experimental well site, HGP-A, in 1976, and connected it to a 3-megawatt power plant in 1982. But since then, Puna Geothermal Venture has been the only other such facility to go online.

And the geothermal dream has become a nightmare to some Big Island residents — especially in Lower Puna, where Kilauea’s East Rift Zone has been the site of all the drilling so far.

Some of this local opposition originated with environmental groups. Inouye’s speech, for instance, was a response to opponents of a plan to build a geothermal plant in Wao Kele O Puna, one of the state’s last lowland rainforests.

Inouye maintained the plant would require only 300 acres out of thousands; environmentalists countered that the plant and the road leading to it would be an invasion route for non-native species. Geothermal has also been opposed by some Native Hawaiians as a desecration of the volcano goddess, Pele.

But much of the opposition has come from ordinary local residents. They say that over the years, HGP-A, which has since closed, and Puna Geothermal Venture have had repeated toxic gas leaks and at least two major well blowouts.

“Our safety record speaks for itself,” Kaleikini said.

He maintained that in the plant’s three decades of operation, “Not one PGV employee or contractor had reported of negative health impacts from PGV.”  But he acknowledged that many of the plant’s neighbors have raised concerns about health impacts.

Many residents say that state and county officials have often ignored their concerns.

Bob Petricci is one. He told Civil Beat that when he bought a lot in Leilani Estates three decades ago, there were only about 25 people living there.

“My family was a military family,” he said. “I believed in the government … 30 years later, my life is defined by being a geothermal protestor and activist. It wasn’t by choice. It was because nobody would help me.”

Puna Geothermal Ventures
The Puna Geothemal Venture has long been the target of complaints and protests. Ormat Technologies Inc.

He said he and his family repeatedly had to evacuate during blowouts and gas leaks at HGP-A and PGV.

“One particular incident with HGP-A, I got really, really sick,” Petricci said. “I called (then-Civil Defense Director, now Mayor) Harry Kim. He picked me up and took me to the hospital. I had respiratory problems and had a high fever. I was so sick I couldn’t drive myself.”

Kim did not respond to a request for comment.

Geoffrey Last bought a farm near HGP-A and PGV, moved his family there and started a flower business.

“My kids used to ride home on a school bus through clouds of gas (from venting at HGP-A),” he said. The state officials told us that was fine. The Health Department said, no worries. I heard them say that, and I believed it.”

Residents have complained of being doused with caustic soda from blowouts and subjected to jet-engine-level noise. But the biggest danger is hydrogen sulfide.

Then, in 1991, a PGV well had a major blowout that convinced the state to create an action plan for improving plant safety and government responses. According to an account included in that report, the county was first notified that something was happening by a resident who noticed a 60-foot-high steam plume rising from the plant.

“Estimated time required for PGV to notify response authorities initially was approximately 19 minutes,” the plan stated. “During this time, PGV reports that they were moving injured workers away from the drilling rig and securing the immediate area around the rig.”

The first evacuations — six homes in Lanipuna Gardens — didn’t start until the next day, the report said. In the hours after that, a house-to-house alert of Leilani Estates residents was started, then stopped, then started again, and evacuation shelters were opened.

Last told Civil Beat he was on the mainland at the time. “I came back, and my business had to move,” he said. “The people who worked for me got sick.”

Last said he lost $5,000 to $6,000. “We couldn’t get the flowers boxed and shipped.”

The incident turned him into an activist. He and other community members sued PGV, which settled out of court.

Residents have complained of being doused with caustic soda from blowouts and subjected to jet-engine-level noise. But the biggest danger is hydrogen sulfide, which occurs naturally when geothermal steam is brought up from great depths.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Division, the gas at low concentrations smells like rotten eggs; at higher concentrations, it paralyzes olfactory nerves, making it odorless. At 700-1,000 parts per million, the symptoms are “rapid unconsciousness, ‘knockdown’ or immediate collapse within 1 to 2 breaths, breathing stops, (and) death within minutes.”

The Feds Get Involved

Adrian Barber testified about experiencing such a “knockdown” at a public meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency about a PGV drilling permit application in 1998. He was working in a shed on his property near PGV, he said, when something “brushed my shoulder.” He realized that “something” was the ground.

“I nearly died that day,” he said.

A PGV hydrogen sulfide monitoring station on his property, he said, only went up to 672 parts per million, and went off the scale for eight and a half minutes at about the time of his collapse.

Before the eruption, the Puna Geothermal Venture plant had been supplying 25 to 30 percent of the Big Island ‘s power needs. Courtesy of Puna Geothermal Venture

The meeting was held because PGV wanted to sink seven new wells, and the EPA had asserted its jurisdiction to require permits for them. Over six and a half hours of testimony, opponents of the new wells, nearly all local residents, outnumbered supporters about two to one.

The proponents were nearly all speaking for business or labor organizations, and emphasized the millions of barrels of imported oil that the plant replaced.

“Surely no one is going to deny 3,400 residents power,” said Paula Helfrich of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board.

Residents at the meeting pleaded with the EPA to protect them not just from the company, but from state and county officials, whom they said had done nothing about the problems. They also testified that although money had been set aside to relocate some of the plant’s closest neighbors, it seemed almost impossible to qualify for that money.

Petricci, who said he had invested about $225,000 in his house, finally sold it himself for $75,000.

Honolulu Civil Beat Civil Cafe Sen Russell Ruderman at Captiol with Sen Maile Shimabukuro, Janet Mason and Carmille Lim. 17 march 2016
State Sen. Russell Ruderman has been arrested twice for protesting the geothermal plant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

EPA officials said little the night of the hearing, perhaps because PGV was still challenging their jurisdiction in court. But since then, their jurisdiction has been established.

In 2014, following a hydrogen sulfide release in 2013, EPA inspectors cited PGV for 14 safety violations involving the plant’s handling of hydrogen sulfide and of pentane, a volatile and highly flammable gas used in the plant’s turbines. Three years later, the company agreed to pay a $76,500 fine, and a reinspection found the plant in compliance.

The 1998 meeting was only one of many such angry gatherings over the years. There have also been numerous protests, with dozens of arrests.

One of those arrested — twice — was Russell Ruderman, who now serves as a state senator.

“We were convinced that we had exhausted every remedy to prevent this hazard from happening,” Ruderman said.

Sophia Wilt said she was a victim of a gas release. Courtesy of Sophia Wilt

And more people have kept finding reasons to protest. In 2014, when Tropical Storm Iselle hit the Big Island, PGV had another big gas release, reportedly affecting scores of residents, some of whom filed a suit against PGV that is still pending in court.

Among them was Sophia Wilt, who told Civil Beat she was trapped in her house by a fallen tree from the storm.

“I was knocked unconscious and the next thing I knew it was morning and I felt like I had been drugged,” she said. When she finally got to the hospital, she said, she found about 10 other people with similar symptoms.

In 2015, the state Department of Health fined PGV more than $20,000 for the storm-related gas release.

‘Just Move Out Of The Way’

Now the volcano is threatening to destroy both the geothermal plant and the community around it.

Palekapu Dedman, the Native Hawaiian kupuna who founded the Pele Defense Fund to oppose geothermal, is not surprised.

“We’ve been living with Pele for hundreds of years,” he said.

When Pele is present, he said, the proper response is simple: “You just move out of the way. You don’t build there. You don’t poke holes.”

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