The Puna Geothermal Venture is a major safety concern in the wake of the eruptions and earthquakes that have shaken the Big Island for more than a week.

Share story

PAHOA, Hawaii — The dangers of building a home on the skirt of an active volcano have become quite clear as residents in Pahoa have evacuated neighborhoods around Kilauea to avoid the lava flows and toxic gases that have emerged from numerous fissures.

More than a dozen fissures oozing lava have opened in the ground, and 36 structures have been destroyed, 26 of them homes. But the advancing molten rock and the potential for future eruptions and ejections of boulders threaten more than homes.

Nearby, nestled between two neighborhoods, is a geothermal plant that is home to thousands of gallons of flammable chemicals and deep wells that pose serious risks if they overheat or are breached.

Long a concern for residents and the target of lawsuits challenging its placement on an active volcano, the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) is a major safety concern in the wake of the eruptions and earthquakes that have shaken the Big Island for more than a week, government officials say. Authorities worry that the seismic activity could cause gas leaks or explosions at the plant, which is near fissures that have broken the surface. On Thursday, PGV employees removed a large reserve of pentane — 60,000 gallons of highly flammable solvent used in the powering of wind turbines — because of fears that it could leak and ignite.

PGV officials and those of its parent company, Reno, Nevada-based Ormat Technologies, did not respond to requests for comment.

The move of chemical stores from the plant in the southeastern corner of the island was completed after Hawaii Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation and gave the state greater authority to step in and mandate precautions.

Residents and officials remain concerned about potential explosions and toxic-gas leaks from the underground wells that provide heat for energy production. If the wells break, they could release more dangerous gas into the area around Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens, the evacuated neighborhoods that already are choked with volcanic fumes.

“Volcanologists know there is magma under and around the geothermal well fields,” County of Hawaii Council Member Jennifer Ruggles, who represents western Puna, said. “The magma is moving and it is unpredictable. There is a real risk that the wells could be damaged.”

Ruggles noted that if a leak were to happen, winds could disperse the gas for miles.

Some neighbors argue that a geothermal plant that uses dangerous chemicals never should have been built in Pahoa.

“This is one of the most unstable pieces of land on the entire planet, and they knew that,” said Robert Petricci, president of the Puna Pono Alliance watchdog group, who lives near the plant. “They built it anyway to make money.”

The PGV has irked residents for decades, even as it produces clean energy for the island. The plant has nine wells that run as deep as 8,000 feet, according to Wil Okabe, managing director for the County of Hawaii. The wells allow steam and hot liquid to rise and power turbines, but they have the potential to explode. They normally produce up to 38 megawatts of electricity, which is sold to Hawaii Electric Light Co.

Operations at the Puna plant have been halted since May 3 because of the seismic and volcanic activity. Now that the pentane stores have been moved, officials have turned their attention to the underground wells.

“We are very concerned about the wells,” Okabe said. He said that one possible way to mitigate the danger could be to pump water into the wells to cool them.

Bob Culnan, 64, a former PGV power-plant operator, said in an interview Friday that he believes a water-cooling method could work but needs to be done soon, noting that “killing the wells” should happen soon, before pressure builds up beneath the closed vents. Should they explode, it could be difficult to cap them later, meaning they could spew steam and gas for years.

Meanwhile, with scientists warning that an explosive eruption may occur at the summit crater within weeks, some people are rethinking plans to visit the Big Island. Local tourism officials emphasized that most of the island is free of volcanic hazards, hoping travelers will still arrive.

Tina Neal, the scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory, said geologists don’t expect the summit eruption to be life-threatening so long as people stay out of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which was closed Friday.

Robert Hughes, the owner of Aloha Junction Bed and Breakfast in Volcano, said he’s had “tons” of cancellations since Wednesday, when geologists first warned of the explosive eruption.

But Hughes, a 45-year resident of the village of some 2,500 people, suspects he’ll soon hear from adventurers and photographers who want to see the eruption up close.