Ongoing health, safety and cultural concerns have still not been addressed.

PAHOA, Hawaii Island — In a move that has ignited a fresh wave of criticism, a geothermal plant on Hawaii island that has long operated on the flanks of one of the world’s most active volcanoes is seeking state approval to expand production.

Puna Geothermal Venture is seeking public comments until June 22 on its latest plans to install new equipment and significantly boost energy output.

For much of the three decades that PGV has operated on the edge of Kilauea, residents – including many Native Hawaiians – have tried everything from protests to litigation to pleading with public officials to close the plant.

Opponents show no sign of backing down. Nor does the plant, owned by Ormat Technologies of Reno, Nevada. At a three-hour public meeting on June 1, opponents expressed concerns about health impacts and what they consider the underlying risks of the plant that have been ignored.

The purpose of the meeting in Pahoa, the main town in the Big Island’s Puna District, was to inform the public of PGV’s draft environmental impact statement, published on May 8, and to listen to what residents had to say.

Puna Geothermal Venture drilling rig District Big Island energy alternative PGV power separator machine
Geothermic vents separate the Puna Geothermal Venture plant, foreground, and homes in Leilani Estates in the Puna District of the Big Island. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Many who testified spoke of health conditions they say they have suffered as the result of PGV operations, whether from releases of hydrogen sulfide or industrial noise or anxiety about the threat of a major accident. Others said they feel ignored by state and county officials, and yet others cited the cultural impacts of what they consider an assault on Pele, the volcano deity they revere.

‘We No Like You’

Emily Naeole, a former two-term Hawaii County Council member, made an impassioned plea for the company to leave Puna.

“PGV go home. We no like you,” Naeole said, prompting audience applause.

The heated meeting was not atypical for PGV public gatherings, according to participants and PGV observers. Many who turn out for regular quarterly meetings have been doing so for years and are unified in their opposition to the geothermal plant. Supporters of the plant usually don’t show up for fear of being shouted down, verbally assaulted or even threatened with bodily injury.

“I’ve been physically assaulted,” said Don Thomas, a geochemist who directs the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, a unit of the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Puna Geothermal Public Meeting Presentation OMT
Mike Kaleikini is the senior director of Hawaii affairs for the Puna Geothermal Venture. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

Guarded by police officers, the meeting in Pahoa was particularly charged because much is at stake. PGV wants state approval to ramp up its energy output from 38 to 46 megawatts in a power purchase agreement with Hawaiian Electric Co. that would run through 2052. The Public Utilities Commission approved the agreement on March 16, 2022, provided that an environmental study be completed in compliance with the Hawaii Environmental Protection Act.

The county planning department is authorized to determine whether the environmental study is adequate or not. Through a spokesperson, planning director Zendo Kern, declined a phone interview to discuss PGV, its study and local concerns.

If PGV gets the green light, the plant would replace 12 power-generating units with three newer units during phase one of the retrofit. A fourth would be added during phase two. Phase one would allow PGV to start producing 46 megawatts, a production level that would increase to 60 megawatts during phase two, according to the draft environmental study.

The new units would be more efficient and quieter.

The upgrades at PGV would help Hawaii create clean energy more efficiently and in greater amounts and aid the state’s transition to its goal of having all its energy needs met by renewable sources by 2045, Mike Kaleikini, the company’s longtime senior director of Hawaii affairs, said in a press release.

In a cost analysis filed with the Public Utilities Commission, the state’s consumer advocate estimated that the typical residential customer could save between $6.32 and $25.72 monthly during the years the power purchase agreement is in place.

Puna Geothermal Public Meeting Presentation Rocky Emily Naeole
Opponents of the geothermal plant, including Emily Naeole, right, dominated a recent public meeting in Puna. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

Although any industrial-scale energy source typically involves some environmental tradeoffs, PGV supporters – and even those who declare themselves agnostic about the plant — say the Puna operation is friendlier to the environment than plants that run on fossil fuels.

“There’s no such thing as a cost-free energy source. And despite the very vocal and heart-felt concerns expressed at community meetings, PGV operating these past decades has saved the island and state the cost, both in terms of dollars and in greenhouse gas emissions, millions of gallons of oil that didn’t have to be brought thousands of miles across the ocean,” Marco Mangelsdorf of ProVision Technologies, a solar energy contractor based in Hilo, said in an email.

Puna Geothermal Public Meeting
The meeting on the geothermal plant was held at the Pahoa Neighborhood Center. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

He and others point out that despite three decades in operation, PGV has not caused any cataclysmic scenarios or laid waste to Lower Puna despite being located on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone where a 2018 eruption wiped out more than 700 homes in neighborhoods surrounding the plant. PGV was largely spared although lava inundated the main access road to plant, two wellheads, the substation of the complex and an adjacent warehouse that stored a drilling rig.

“Despite the very vocal and heart-felt concerns expressed at community meetings, PGV operating these past decades has saved the island and state the cost.”

Marco Mangelsdorf, responsible managing employee, ProVision Technologies

PGV restored power production at a reduced capacity in November 2020. As of early this year, the plan produces about 24.2 megawatts, the company said in the environment study. It anticipates boosting generation to 38 megawatts by the end of this year.

Noel Morin, board vice chair of Sustainable Energy Hawaii, said he sympathizes with the concerns of local residents, but he finds the rhetoric extreme and unreasonable at times. He also doesn’t think the public meetings offer a realistic portrait of public sentiment about the plant.

“It’s not a safe space and it’s not respectful. There’s no aloha. It’s devoid of any other perspective,” Morin said.

He acknowledged that he doesn’t live near the plant and doesn’t have direct experience of any impacts, perceived or actual.

Four Hawaii state regulators from the Department of Health said in interviews that the plant has generally been in compliance with its permits with a few exceptions between 2014 and 2017.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined PGV $76,500 in 2016 for failing to take steps to prevent accidental releases of hydrogen sulfide and for failing to properly store and handle pentane, a highly flammable solvent used in the plant’s turbines.

Years Of Torment

For some residents who live near the plant or elsewhere in Puna, they say it’s been a long era of torment, disrespect and lack of communication. One of the most vociferous and dogged opponents of PGV is Sara Steiner, a paralegal who lives in Kalapana.

She and her former husband used to live in Leilani Estates within earshot of the plant. Steiner has written thousands of pages of public comments over the years, attended countless public meetings and has battled PGV in court.

Sara Steiner critic Puna Geothermal Venture plant Puna District Big Island energy alternative PGV power igneous rock
Sara Steiner is a leading critic of Puna Geothermal Venture. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“It’s my mission to shut it down,” Steiner said in an interview near Fissure 8 in Leilani Estates recently. PGV’s drill rig stood visible across the 5-year-old lava field.

Like many other PGV critics, Steiner said she’s been “gassed” many times over the years, meaning exposed to high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a volcanic gas the smells like rotten eggs at low levels that can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory system.

At moderate levels, exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting in addition to eye and respiratory irritation, according to health experts. High-level exposure can cause loss of consciousness, coma and possible death.

Sensitivity to hydrogen sulfide can vary widely. Some people experience fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, irritability, poor memory and fatigue from long-term, low-level exposure.

Puna Geothermal Venture plant Puna District Big Island energy alternative PGV power igneous rock
The Puna Geothermal Venture plant is photographed from the Leilani Estates neighborhood on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Puna District of the Big Island. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Steiner said she believes a plant like PGV would never be allowed in Kona, Waimea or other more affluent sections of the Big Island. She thinks PGV is located where it is in part because Puna has high rates of poverty and marginalized populations, a classic scenario of an industrial operation being purposely located in a place where people may be less inclined to speak out or sue.

Laura Travis, a registered nurse who lived in Puna but moved to Arizona for medical reasons, agreed with Steiner on that point.

“I see environmental justice issues,” Travis said.

Some residents recalled a particularly disturbing incident when Tropical Storm Iselle battered Hawaii on Aug. 7, 2014. The powerful storm toppled trees and transmission lines connecting PGV to the grid. As a result, the plant conducted an emergency shutdown, which triggered the release of steam containing hydrogen sulfide.

Mike Kaleikini, Senior Director, Hawaii Affairs, vents Puna Geothermal Venture District Big Island energy alternative PGV power control room
The Puna Geothermal Venture plant control room is photographed on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Puna District of the Big Island. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Because fallen trees blocked some residents inside their homes preventing them from evacuating, they were exposed to excessive air pollution from approximately 7:25 p.m. to 9:18 p.m. the night of the storm. The Department of Health determined that 39 pounds of hydrogen sulfide had been released due to the failure of a pressure release value. It fined PGV $23,700 for the incident.

Travis soon heard people talking about health impacts from their exposure to gas that night. She and her husband were involved with a geothermal watchdog group, Puna Pono Alliance, now dissolved.

In the weeks and months after the storm, Travis collected incident reports from some 210 residents who said they had experienced a wide variety of health complaints seemingly consistent with exposure of hydrogen sulfide.

“What I saw was a clear pattern of illness,” Travis said.

 She turned her findings over to the Department of Health but in her opinion, nothing resulted from her efforts as far as she knows, Travis said.

DOH didn’t respond to a request for comment about Travis’ assertions.

PGV issued a press released shortly after the storm. The company said 70 employees and contractors worked at the plant and none reported any illness or nausea.

Lack Of Health Studies

Uncertainty about the health impacts of PGV is something that needs to resolved, according to Ashley Kierkiewicz, a Hawaii County Council member who lives in and represents Puna.

PGV was a client of Kierkiewicz when she worked for Hastings and Pleadwell, a public relations firm, up until 2019, she acknowledged.  

Ashley Lehualani Kierkiewicz is a member of the Hawaii Island County Council, representing the Puna District. (Courtesy: Ashley Kierkiewicz)

At the June 1 meeting in Pahoa, at least two members of the public criticized Kierkiewicz for allegedly being a PGV advocate and not sticking up for them.

These days, one of Kierkiewicz’s top priorities is implementing the recommendations of the 2013 report done by consultant Peter Adler.

It was a geothermal public health assessment commissioned by former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi. The 200-plus-page document examined the type and extent of health impacts from geothermal operations in Puna.

The report found a dearth of health studies on the disease and illness patterns among Puna’s residents. Kierkiewicz and Paul Kuykendall, co-founder of Waihu O Puna Watershed Coalition, said no further research on health impacts has been done since the decade-old report came out, as far as they know.

“Risks from geothermal energy production in Lower Puna exist. The actual extent and impacts of those risks remain unresolved,” the report said.

What is known is that hazardous chemicals are brought to the surface by PGV and better monitoring systems need to be put in place.

“PGV adds industrial chemicals to the mix in the process and then sends the composite fluid back down. However, fluids inevitably escape to air, water, or at surface level. Harmful effects can only be understood through better monitoring and reliable health data,” the report said.

Kierkiewicz said she’s working with the Waihu O Puna Watershed Coalition and U.S. Geological Survey to do a groundwater study that would involve local residents being trained as “a cohort of Indigenous data scientists” who can do the work long term.

Her office is attempting to get a more robust monitoring system installed at PGV, to certify residents to be monitoring experts and to have the data livestreamed and made publicly accessible. The councilwoman is also working with Civil Defense, community partners and residents to develop evacuation plans, including routes, communication protocols and an alarm system.

station measure wind speed direction noise environmental conditions Puna Geothermal Venture District Big Island energy alternative PGV power control room
The Puna Geothermal Venture plant uses these stations to measure wind speed, direction, noise and other environmental conditions, photographed on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Beyond emissions and concerns about the possibility of groundwater contamination, many of PGV’s critics say the plant’s location simply doesn’t make sense. Why risk locating a geothermal plant that drills thousands of feet into the ground into an active volcano when some research indicates that such activities can induce seismicity, or, in other words, set off earthquakes that could lead to gas leaks or explosions at the plant?

Supporters say the plant is located where it is because it’s a prime location for geothermal energy production and that regulators have fully addressed the risks. Thomas, the University of Hawaii geothermal expert, said no matter how much evidence there is that the plant can safely operate in the rift zone, critics will never accept it.

Thomas said he concluded long ago that trying to address the concerns of local residents and PGV critics was a waste of his time.

“They are unaddressable. They only way they will be satisfied is when the plant goes away,” Thomas said.

The plant’s location is precisely what irritates many people who consider themselves Pele practitioners. Some Native Hawaiians say that geothermal energy production is totally unacceptable because it disrespects the volcano goddess.

A mural of the Hawaii volcano deity Pele in Pahoa Village. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018)

As the home and embodiment of Pele, the entire Kilauea volcano is considered a sacred area for many cultural practitioners who consider the operations of PGV an affront to their traditions, spiritual beliefs and way of life.

At the recent meeting in Pahoa, cultural practitioner Palikapu Dedman blasted the environmental study’s authors for giving only a cursory overview to what he considers the cultural impacts of increased energy production at PGV.

“They have policies on how you look at air quality, water quality. But there’s nothing about my traditional practice,” Dedman said.

The report does contains a section about cultural impacts and cites a variety of consultations, ethnographic research and previous archeological studies. But it concludes that no past or ongoing cultural practices are located within the project area.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author