(ABOVE) Video recorded during a recent Puna Pono Alliance meeting after Iselle knocked Puna Geothermal Venture offline. Story contains file images of PGV provided by HELCO and also testimony from residents – recorded by Occupy Hilo – who say the venting procedure at the plant made them sick.
Video by David Corrigan
PAHOA, Hawaii – On the night Hurricane Iselle hit the Big Island, an alert was issued by Hawaii County Civil Defense. “A Civil Defense alert is now in effect for the following areas due to the uncontrolled release of hydrogen sulfide at the Puna Geothermal Venture in Pohoiki,” state the message, which goes on to name Leilani Estates, Lani Puna Gardens, and Pohoiki Road. The alart continued, “Residents are advised to remain indoors or evacuate the area if any discomfort is experienced.” Pahoa High School Gym was named as a center for help for any evacuees.
The news caused a stir over the internet, and most residents were unable to leave their home since the storm was bearing down on Puna at that moment. The alert was cancelled a short time later, and trouble appeared to have been avoided. But during a community meeting a few days later, concerns rose as stories of suffering were shared. Video testimony was filmed by the Occupy Hilo organization and published to YouTube.
Puna Geothermal Venture issued a media release, saying the 38-megawatt power generating station was shutdown as designed, refuting reports of an “uncontrolled release” or “spill” at the facility.
Here is the media release from PGV:
Tropical Storm-related Information from Puna Geothermal Venture
The night of Tropical Storm Iselle, Puna Geothermal Venture’s 38-megawatt power generating station on Hawaii Island was shutdown as designed. There was no “uncontrolled release” or “spill” at the facility contrary to some initial reports by commentators.
To prepare for the storm, PGV staff reviewed emergency procedures in anticipation of bad weather. PGV increased night shift crews through the storm and actively reduced the plant’s output in preparation of extreme weather conditions.
At about 7:30 p.m. Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO) lost both transmission lines that PGV connects to in order to transmit power to the electrical grid. With the loss of the transmission lines, the plant shutdown as designed.
By design and following approved procedures, steam was released through the emergency steam release facility. That steam was ABATED, that is, caustic soda and water were added to scrub the steam of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This was done according to regulatory procedures, per the approved emergency response plan. This process is part of PGV’s Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) air permit requirements.
The bulk of the steam was released within the first ten minutes. The residual energy of the steam system was safely released and the wells completely shut in in approximately 45 minutes. A relief valve malfunction resulted in a low flow of steam released for slightly longer until isolated approximately 15 minutes later.
During the early part of the steam release, there was a sulfur smell. A PGV employee monitored levels at the fence line and had a peak reading of 25 parts per billion. The DOH regulation requires that we not exceed 25 parts per billion (ppb) on an hourly average. The 25 ppb reading was a “peak,” and not sustained. This emission event was well below DOH regulatory limits.
Based on the air monitoring during the shutdown, emissions remained below permitted levels and there was never any danger or violation of environmental limits. There was no need to evacuate, but Hawaii County Civil Defense alerted residents that they could evacuate voluntarily.
To put this into perspective, it is important to note that OSHA standards allow workers without protective equipment to work in an area with 10 parts per million, or 10,000 parts per billion.
The plant has remained offline since the storm and PGV began scheduled maintenance work on Monday, August 11; this scheduled maintenance had been planned with HELCO a year ago. We anticipate restarting the plant as early as Friday, August 15 depending on transmission line availability from HELCO.
The scheduled maintenance includes routine inspections, equipment overhauls, mechanical and electrical repairs and testing.
There are about 70 employees and contractors at the PGV site on Pohoiki Road in Pahoa supporting the maintenance activity, and we have no reports of illness or nausea.
PGV continues to support the local community in recovery efforts through the local Red Cross.
What it means to “shut in wells”
The pressure and flow control valves automatically shut, through computer programming overseen with human interface. This stops the flow from the geothermal resource to the generators that produce power.Puna Geothermal Venture on Aug. 14, 2014
On the same day, the Sierra Club and Puna Pono Alliance drafted a letter to officials concerning the incident, asking why the plant was allowed to operate as the storm hit Puna.
Incompetence or Indifference
(An open letter to Senator Hirono, Senator Schatz, Representative Hanabusa, Representative Gabbard, Governor Abercrombie, Mayor Kenoi, Region 9 EPA Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, HELCO President Jay Ignacio, and Hawaii State Legislators.)
People were hurt, and property and equipment were damaged during Tropical Storm Iselle. The community is grateful to the first responders and relief providers that have worked so hard and done so much in Lower Puna. But some of the serious effects of the storm were entirely preventable.
As Tropical Storm Iselle began battering lower Puna on August 7, 2014, Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) went offline and began a release of geothermal fluids through the plant’s emergency steam relief system. The release dumped noxious gas into the community surrounding the geothermal power plant for some time. Residents that were trapped in their homes by the tropical storm reported smelling stronger noxious gas odor than they had ever smelled before. Many developed symptoms that could be associated with exposure to hydrogen sulfide, several people passed out, and one man could not be awakened for several hours, possibly due to exposure. Respiratory and neurological symptoms lasted for several days.
Many questions will need to be asked about the cause and consequences of this upset, but one question can be asked right now:
Why was the plant operating when Hawaiian Electric Light Company (HELCO), PGV, and State and County regulators all should have known that operating the plant during a major storm would possibly, in fact probably, lead to an upset?
To understand why the decisions made or not made must immediately be called into focus, we need only to review the upset at PGV on March 13, 2013. On that date with PGV operating near its maximum power, maintenance on one of the two transmission lines and a malfunction on the second caused a loss of load at PGV, forcing the plant to instantly go from near full load to no load. This caused a dangerous over-pressure condition in the power plant, which required the emergency steam relief system to dump geothermal fluid and hydrogen sulfide into the air. Discussions between the US Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department of Health, the County Civil Defense, and the community continue regarding corrective actions stemming from this incident.
Now 17 months later, we learn that PGV was operating at power during Tropical Storm Iselle. Anyone who understood the causes of the March 13, 2013 upset cannot help but be perplexed by this fact. Were HELCO, PGV, and State and County regulators simply indifferent to the potential danger to the community or were they incompetent? Any informed person clearly understands that transmission lines will be lost and electric grid malfunctions are likely during a predicted major storm. Anyone with knowledge of lower Puna knows that during even a local storm, fallen trees make access to PGV difficult. Certainly anyone with knowledge of lower Puna knows that evacuation from homes during high winds, even if possible, is dangerous.
Although we do not know the exact chain of events that caused the release of geothermal fluid and noxious gas to the air on the night of August 7, we do know that an upset could have been easily predicted based on the March 13, 2013 incident. We also know that as hydrogen sulfide was pouring into the community, the three PGV perimeter hydrogen sulfide samplers required by the State Department of Health to regulate PGV emissions and to inform the County and community of PGV emissions went out of commission. The Fire Department’s Hazardous Material Team could not reach the area to sample for noxious gas due to dangerous conditions on the roads. Suggested evacuation for residents feeling discomfort from exposure required exactly the same roads that were impassable to the Hazardous Material Team.
Many of the issues discussed here have been discussed for many years. Hawaii County Emergency Procedures recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 have not been fully implemented. In 2012, after the Hawaii Island County Council passed an ordinance requiring creation of emergency procedures for PGV and practice of those procedures, the ordinance was vetoed based on an assertion that additional procedures and practice were unnecessary. The Geothermal Public Health Assessment Report’s criticisms of the State’s hydrogen sulfide “monitoring” system have not been addressed by DOH.
Now is the time for our political leaders to forcefully address these issues. Puna Geothermal Venture should be shutdown until a fully functioning and tested Emergency Response Plan is in place and an adequate, storm hardened, and robust site monitoring system can be designed, installed, and tested.Robert Petricci, PPA President and Nelson Ho, Chairman of the Sierra Club, Moku Loa Group
Last Thursday, the Puna Pono Alliance met again. This time, Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s director of Hawaiian Affairs, spoke with the crowd. Big Island Video News caught part of that meeting and interviewed Puna Pono Alliance Vice President Tom Travis, as well as former mayor and Civil Defense administrator Harry Kim.
We will be following this story as it develops.