Mayor asks for EA on old NELHA site

A game of bureaucratic pingpong has Mayor Billy Kenoi taking matters into his own hands and asking for an environmental assessment of an old Puna geothermal energy site leased by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.


A game of bureaucratic pingpong has Mayor Billy Kenoi taking matters into his own hands and asking for an environmental assessment of an old Puna geothermal energy site leased by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

Kenoi has been corresponding with NELHA, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state Department of Health following a Sept. 9 report by the Geothermal Public Health Assessment Study Group. The report recommends the county “use the full strength of its influence with state and federal agencies and private landowners” to ensure the old HGP-A site, Hawaii Geothermal Project’s initial test plant, is free of contaminants.

Of particular concern to the public, Kenoi said in an Oct. 5 letter to the agencies, is an area that during the 1980s contained open and unlined ponds where geothermal fluids were collected. When the plant was shut down, the ponds were simply covered with soil and left to grow over.

“There are reasonable community concerns that the chemical makeup of the brine may contain heavy metals or other material that could leach into the surrounding environment,” Kenoi said.

DLNR Chairman William Aila, in a Nov. 5 response to Kenoi’s letter, said it is not his agency’s responsibility to ensure the site is not an environmental hazard. He said DLNR leased the property to the Research Corp. of the University of Hawaii in 1979. The university corporation was the administrative agent for the HGP-A Development Group, which consisted of representatives from the state Department of Planning and Economic Development, the University of Hawaii, Hawaii Electric Light Co. and the Hawaii County Mayor’s office, Aila said.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources subsequently assigned the lease to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, NELHA’s predecessor, which is still the lessee of the property.

“Upon termination, the terms of the lease require the lessee to clean and restore the parcel prior to surrender,” Aila said in the letter.

Gary Gill, deputy director of the Environmental Health Administration for the state Department of Health, also declined to help.

“My staff has looked into this issue in more detail and do not feel that additional investigation is warranted,” Gill said in a Nov. 7 letter.

He cited six reasons there is no need for further action, relying on a 1976 baseline report and further discussions with a University of Hawaii at Hilo scientist. He said UH-Hilo tests on brine and silica gel, which precipitates in the ponds over time, have shown only low levels to no detectable levels of trace metals.

“Sampling and testing of material at the base of the former ponds is unlikely to change this conclusion,” Gill said.

NELHA Executive Director Greg Barbour, in a Nov. 21 response to Kenoi, said he met with DLNR and Health Department officials and agrees with the Health Department’s conclusion. He said an October University of Hawaii “state of the art silica analysis” further found no levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead or selenium that exceeded the “background noise at the detection limits.”

“These findings further substantiate our conclusion that the silica deposited from the geothermal fluids posed no threat to the groundwater system near HGP-A site at the time, nor does it pose a threat to the current groundwater quality now, Barbour said in his letter. “We agree with the Department of Health … that additional investigation is not warranted.”

Kenoi wants more assurance and will be asking the Windward Planning Commission for $25,000 from the Geothermal Asset Fund to test water in the five ponds. Other requests from the fund include $180,000 for air quality monitoring equipment, $45,000 for ground water sampling in Kilauea east rift and $55,000 for a top-level analysis by the John A. Burns School of Medicine of health effects of low to moderate hydrogen sulfide exposure.

“We’re going to make sure we do a thorough review of the site and address any issues,” Kenoi said Wednesday in an interview.

He said the $25,000 will be enough to conduct an enhanced level 1 environmental site assessment, which isn’t a full-blown Environmental Assessment that he requested from the state, but sufficient to evaluate any potential risk.

Barbour, in an email interview Thursday, clarified that NELHA has never declined to participate in further study, he just doesn’t believe it is necessary.

“We look forward to working with the mayor and his team and we are more than willing to assist,” Barbour said. “I think the mayor is showing great leadership on this issue.”

“Assistance would include making our property available for any form of testing (i.e., air and ground) or monitoring,” he added.

The study group notes in its report that HGP-A may have emitted unabated as much as 4,900 pounds of lead, 520 pounds of chromium, 2.9 pounds of arsenic and 0.36 pounds of mercury monthly.

“It is not clear that the sampling penetrated the infill of these pits,” states the report, submitted by Project Director Peter Adler of Accord Consultants.

The group consisted of a dozen residents of Puna, home to the state’s only geothermal power plant, Puna Geothermal Venture. Kenoi commissioned the report about a year ago in response increasing concerns in Puna over existing geothermal development and plans by Hawaii Electric Light Co. to expand it by another 50 megawatts.


The report can be viewed at

The Windward Planning Commission is scheduled to address the requests at its Jan. 9 meeting.

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