Kenoi administration takes first steps toward addressing geothermal health concerns
By Alan D. McNarie
Last September, the Geothermal Public Health Study Group, appointed by Mayor Billy Kenoi to examine possible health risks of geothermal developments such as Puna Geothermal Ventures to the surrounding community, released its Findings and Recommendations. The report was not the scientific study of health risks that many Lower Puna residents have been demanding for years; instead, it was the product of a “Joint Fact Finding Group,” consisting of scientific experts and of knowledgeable stakeholders from both sides of the issue, who made recommendations about what possible health risks needed to be studied and what could be done to better protect the public while those studies were being conducted.
Now the Kenoi administration is preparing to actually implement some of the committee’s recommendations, including a study of existing research about geothermal hazards, a ground-water study and the purchase of more and better monitoring equipment. But to pay for those actions, it’s asking for the Windward Planning Commission to release money from the Geothermal Asset Fund, which was originally set up to compensate residents “impacted by geothermal energy development activities.” If the Planning Commission goes along, then money originally earmarked to compensate victims could be used instead to determine if they may have been victimized.
The study group was set up at the mayor’s request in September of 2012, after decades of complaints by local residents of gas emissions and noise problems at the plant and of alleged health effects ranging from respiratory and nervous system problems to sterility.
Kenoi asked Peter Adler of the consulting firm Accord 3.0 to lead the study. Adler says he only took the job on the condition that he wouldn’t be pressured by the administration to reach a predetermined outcome—and that Kenoi kept his promise.
“I got no pressure from the mayor, the Council, the [Windward] Planning Commission or anybody else, except for stakeholders, who had lots of opinions,” he told the Chronicle.
“While Study Group members hold different political views regarding geothermal energy development, the Group takes no collective position on those debates other than an overriding unanimous belief in the need for useful and more definitive health studies,” the group’s report noted.
And its recommendations didn’t look like a whitewash, either.
“Puna’s overall public health appears worse than the County and State as a whole. We do not have an accurate and readily available profile of disease and illness patterns for the past and current populations of Puna, and more particularly, for Lower Puna,” the group’s report stated. Its authors concluded that “here is evidence that there were health effects from the exposures during the development of geothermal before 1993. The full extent and severity of those effects has not been documented.” The group was less certain about health effects after 1993, but did note that “In 1996, Dr. Marvin Legator conducted a study of Puna residents that showed significantly higher adverse health effects normally associated with industrial H2S than three reference communities.”
“Risks from geothermal energy production in Lower Puna exist,” the report states flatly, but continues, The actual extent and impacts of those risks remains unresolved. What is known is that hazardous chemicals are brought up by PGV. 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 group made several recommendations. The first was for a “comprehensive health study” that examined, among other things, the possibilities that hydrogen sulfide exposure had caused central nervous system and respiratory damage to residents living near the geothermal sites; that groundwater could have been contaminated by chemicals and/or heavy metals from the geothermal sites, with possible health effects on residents; and that residents exposed to gas emissions, mandatory evacuations and/or noise and vibration from the plants may be more likely to show “symptoms of anxiety disorders.” Other recommendations included the establishment of a stronger monitoring system for emissions—“Current monitoring systems and protocols are inadequate and must be substantially improved,” it noted—a comprehensive “meta-analysis” of existing literature on the health effects of hydrogen sulfide exposure; an examination for possible pollutants from HGP-A, an old experimental geothermal facility that has stored geothermal and drilling fluids in an above-ground pond; a review system, with community participation, to ensure that any health studies were credible and objective; a better system of communication with residents; and the assurance that any future geothermal developers would pay for baseline health and environmental studies before the projects went forward.
“In the words of one Study Group member: ‘We are not anti-geothermal, but any geothermal enterprise must be safe for the community, for plant operators, for the county, and for investors,’” the report noted.
Kenoi administration spokesperson Kevin Dayton said that the administration would be requesting funding from Windward Planning Commission’s Geothermal Asset Fund, a joint fund established with money from Puna Geothermal Venture and the state, to start several projects in response to the report. $55,000, for instance, would go to University of Hawaii-Manoa’s John A. Burns School of Medicine a “meta-analysis,” or study of existing medical literature, about the effects of geothermal and hydrogen sulfide exposure on the central nervous system. Dayton said a second proposed study, an analysis of hospitalization and medical visit records to look for patterns that might be related to geothermal, would cost $27,500, but was scrapped after that after a meeting between the mayor and the Geothermal Health Study Group members, who felt that study wouldn’t be useful.
Other requests will include $140,000 for additional stationary hydrogen sulfide detectors; $40,000 for hand-held detectors that will be distributed to community members; another $45,000 for water quality testing of local wells and warm ponds by U.S. Geological Service, to be started in Spring of 2014. The administration also wants to spend $25,000 to test the old HGP-A site for pollutants—if the state, which controls the site, will let them.
“We picked the ones that could be done quickly… that we could move on right now,” said Dayton.
Not all the members of the Geothermal Public Health Study Group agree with all the mayor’s choices. Among them is long-time community activist Bob Petricci, who’s especially unhappy with what happened regarding the health study and the Burns School of Medicine. He noted that the County Council, at one point, had approved a proposal for a $250,000 geothermal-related health study, but the mayor had vetoed it. Then, after the study group had recommended the health study again, Petricci says, the Burns School of Medicine was approached about assisting the county with preparing a Request for Proposals for a that study. But what the school came up with was something very different.
“They wanted to do two studies,” Petricci said. “They wanted to award themselves a contract to study the studies instead of doing the RFP. And just doesn’t seem right and it’s not in the best interest of the community. Now it’s been over another year and we still can’t get an RFP.”
There could be problems, too, with how the Kenoi Administration wants to fund its proposals. The County actually has two geothermal related funds: the Geothermal Asset Fund and the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Fund. The latter was originally called the Geothermal Relocation Revolving Fund, but it was renamed and its mission was revised in 2008 so that moneys from that fund, which was running a surplus at the time, could also be used for infrastructure projects in Puna as well. Ironically, the Kenoi Administration vetoed one attempt to return the fund to its original mission—but then PGV began drilling a new well and new complaints of noise and fumes began surfacing. Big Island Now reported in May of 2013 that “Since 2012, the county has designated 25 homes for purchase, at a tentative total cost of $5,437,649 (there is currently not enough money in the fund to cover those purchases, and details of some of them still must be worked out).”
Meanwhile the Asset Fund, which could also be used to pay for relocations, has remained virtually untapped because of its more stringent requirements. The section of the County Code that authorizes it specifically allows only one use: “compensating persons impacted by geothermal energy development activities” and it requires proof of “impact.” The Windward Planning Commission, which administers the fund, isn’t even allowed to take administrative costs out of the fund.
The Chronicle asked Dayton how detection devices and medical studies could be construed as “compensation.” Dayton referred us to Administrative Rule 12, promulgated by the Planning Commission. He said the plan to use the fund to pay for the projects had been vetted by the county’s Corporation Counsel.
Rule 12 defines the county’s procedures for processing claims against the fund. It does allow “mitigation projects”–something that seems to go beyond simple “compensation”—but it requires an community organization to make a claim.
The Chronicle contacted Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida and asked him if detection tools and health studies considered a mitigation project, and if so, what is the organization making the claim? Ashida referred the Chronicle to Assistant Corporation Counsel Bill Brilhante, whom he said had been working on the issue.
“The claimant is the community itself,” Brilhante said. He argued that without studies and data to create a baseline, establishing claims was like “throwing darts in the dark.” In order to establish claims he maintained, the county had to “Take that first step and commission the studies in which we can identify if there are indeed correction actions required, and then we take the actions necessitated.”
We brought up the fact that the County Code only allowed “compensation” from the fund and contained no language about “mitigation.” Brilhante professed that he had only read Rule 12, not the County Code section it was based upon. He said he would read the code and call back.
The next morning, he did.
“The intent of this ordinance was to implement and effectuate the issuing of Resource Permit No. 2 with its accompanying rules,” he said. In light of the resource permit and Rule 12, he felt that the meaning of “compensating” was “ambiguous”.
“I think mitigation can be a form of compensation,” he said.
If the funding kinks can be worked out, the administration’s proposals could at least offer a first step towards addressing some of problems that residents close to PGV claim have been plaguing thems since the plant’s opening.
Even Petricci acknowledges that “we really appreciate” the offer of more hydrogen sulfide detectors, for instance. But aside from the “meta-analysis,” the group’s “unanimous” goal of “useful and more definitive health studies” remains elusive. The administration has yet to figure out how to move beyond studying studies and on to studying the health problems of real people.
“I don’t think that it’s that difficult to issue an RFP for a health study,” Petricci maintains. “I think that we should just find someone who can do it.”
(Alan McNarie has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.)