Commentary on Bill 256 (Geothermal) by Councilman Pete Hoffmann

Probably no issue in recent memory has as many twists and turns as the discussion regarding Bill 256.  We have a cast of supposed villains, heroes, politicians, angry constituents, and an almost endless litany of related topics to add spice to the confused mix.  We have the ‘perfect storm’ of conflicting interests.  I’m not sure that even a professional group of writers could have scripted a more complex scenario.  Let’s see if I have this correct:

Bill 256 proposed by Mr. Yagong alters the current objectives for which the County expends resources from the geothermal relocation fund.  These payouts were mandated as part of the settlement due to the 1991 blow-out of the well.  Initially these were designed to resettle residents who wished to escape from the ‘dangers’ of living near a possibly unstable volcanic hole in the ground.  For a variety of reasons, the County used very little of the funds since not many residents exercised the option of moving, and the few that did, found the bureaucracy daunting.

In 2007 the Council, at the urgings of Ms Naeole the Puna Council member at that time, expanded the purposes for which the funds could be used, determining that Puna’s infrastructure needed some resources.  This measure was passed without much debate (as I remember) and with almost unanimous support from those community members who did testify.   Now, with the backlash generated by the drilling of a new well, some community members want to see these funds employed to better monitor and plan for emergencies associated with the future operation of the geothermal facility, citing concerns for public health.

In response to these vocal concerns, the County Civil Defense Director Benedict Fuata initially indicated his office would become pro-active and prepare the specific evacuation plan called for many years ago as one of the necessary measures to plan for future contingencies.  I think even Mayor Kenoi added his public support for this new plan.  Mr. Fuata also promised to actually conduct an evacuation drill in July to test the system.  One can only wonder why the County’s Civil Defense office didn’t take such actions previously?? Nevertheless, it was good to hear that the current administration was rectifying this long period of inactivity.

Now, if  I read correctly the latest newspaper article, the administration is backtracking.  We are now told we don’t require a specific evacuation plan for Puna, that the current general plans will suffice.  And we aren’t going to conduct any drills at the present time.  I can only speculate what changed the administration’s approach to this issue, but I don’t believe this latest statement will do much to enhance the County’s credibility with Puna residents on either side of this issue.

Another component of the current geothermal discussion involves the State.  The Governor wishes to exploit the geothermal resources present in the volcano and has encouraged Puna Geothermal Ventures (PGV) to drill another well.  The State indicates it wants to export geothermal power to Oahu by means of a cross-island cable.  I’m not opposed to this concept; after all we are one state and we would benefit (indirectly at least) from any effort that would reduce the state’s dependency on fossil fuel.  However, the state does not wish to prepare another Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this new well.

PGV maintains that previous documents, dating back some years, are sufficient to cover this EIS requirement.  Residents are skeptical about this argument and even those advocating for geothermal power wonder whether the State is not marching down the same unsuccessful path trod by the superferry in respect to EIS requirements.

Then we also have Ormat, the geothermal developer.  From the information I have gathered (and I’ll admit I am no technician in this field) Ormat’s history seems to be a solid one.  While I can’t evaluate expertly all the details, it would seem that if we had to find some developer to operate the geothermal plant, Ormat would be a reasonable choice.  I recognize that Ormat has a considerable stake in this process and obviously doesn’t wish to have its safety responsibilities subject to public veto.  However, as the rhetoric increases and becomes more shrill, Ormat is now criticized for being ‘foreign’ and I’ve even heard testimony and have received at least one e-mail that chastises Ormat as an “Israeli” enterprise.   The aloha spirit suffers in the wake of these comments.

Finally, we have the Leilani Estates homeowners now realizing that this entire debate/discussion may have unintended consequences, i.e. property values may be adversely impacted if the Council passes Bill 256.  Someone has ‘connected the dots’ and recognizes that safety issues, real or imagined connected with the geothermal facility, could affect property values, not to mention home insurance.  This may have been overlooked by many in the initial stages of this discussion. I know I raised this when speaking to a few Puna residents some weeks ago, commenting that to ‘awaken the sleeping dog’ has potential side-effects.  Did we not understand that when residents of Leilani Estates recently supported Mr. Blas’ legislation for an evacuation center in the Leilani community, that the question of property values would arise?  I’ve heard testifiers say that when they came into the area in the mid-90s looking to purchase a home, they were not informed by realtors that a potential danger might exist.

Does anyone not see that with all the public discussion now on this topic that it will be extremely difficult for realtors to avoid disclosure of this issue in the future, if indeed they were guilty of this in the past?  Didn’t anyone see the connection?  I fully sympathize with homeowners in the area, but I fear that regardless of what the Council does with Bill 256 in any form, property values will suffer.  One can speculate whether the County’s inactivity on certain aspects of this issue for the past 20 years didn’t take into account just this aspect of the problem? Whatever the reason the ‘sleeping dog’ is now awake.

There are other related participants in this saga (I haven’t even mentioned HELCO for example, which seems to be everyone’s bad guy), and other detours in this very complex debate.  Let’s remember, Bill 256 did not set up the mechanism to relocate Puna residents if they wished to move.  This was part of the original code adopted years ago.  Bill 256 does establish a specific radius (one mile) around PGV for relocation, replacing the word ‘near’ in the original code with a specific distance.  Some are now calling this a “condemnation zone”, but the relocation option was always present.  What was not present is the current very vocal and strident debate regarding geothermal drilling.  And Bill 256 does call for the use of funds to purchase and/or expand a number of safety items and equipment to meet the concerns of local homeowners.

Bottom line: In my opinion, it would be negligent of the Council to refuse to emphasize procurement of safety equipment.  I understand fully the concerns of homeowners regarding their property values.  For many their homes represent a life-long investment.  But I see this in a different light, primarily as a safety issue, and as an elected public official if I have to make a choice between property values and public health and safety, I must choose the latter.  I’m certainly willing to continue this discussion to make certain I haven’t missed anything, but for the moment, this is how I see this matter.

Councilman Pete Hoffmann

 

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