Lava from the erupting Kilauea volcano creeped onto the property of Puna Geothermal Venture Monday, burning a small structure and heightening fears that the plant could release clouds of toxic gas whether it is compromised by the molten rock.
Lava is still actively erupting from fissures near the plant. Though flows are mostly moving south towards the ocean, the lava is also slowly moving north onto the plant’s property and is currently approximately 650 feet absent from the plant itself.
Currently, a pre-existing berm that is 11-feet high is halting one of the two lava flows from moving towards the wells, according to USGS scientist Wendy Stovall. She said USGS scientists are monitoring the path of the flow with drones.
“There was at least 11 feet for the lava to overtop the berm,” Stovall said Tuesday.
But officials said they are nevertheless preparing for the worst-case scenario: whether lava inundates a well, they said, it could trigger a release of deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.
The plant was built along the lower East Rift Zone of Kilauea volcano. The site consists of 11 wells dug more than a mile into the soil. Fluid is pumped into these wells and the geothermal heat produces steam, which then heats vessels of pentane on the surface. As the pentane heats, it expands and causes the turbines to turn, which produces the electricity.
Puna Geothermal Venture is owned by Ormat in Nevada, which has built over 150 such facilities everyone over the world and has been selling electricity to Hawaii’s largest utility company since 1992.
The plant typically supplies approximately 25% of the electricity for the nearly 90,000 customers on Hawaii’s ample Island, a spokesperson for Hawaii Electric Light Company told BuzzFeed News, but added that the company has “sufficient power for the island needs at this time.”
The plant has been a concern in the area since fissures broke the ground open starting on May 3 and began spewing lava into two residential neighborhoods, Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens, which are located to the north of the geothermal venture.
The structure that burned down Monday was an experimental geothermal project site adjacent to the plant that was built by the state in the 1970s, according to county spokesperson Janet Snyder.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Puna Geothermal Venture and Ormat, its parent company, but has not received a response.
Earlier this month, Hawaii Gov. David Ige tasked the state’s current emergency management administrator Thomas Travis — who took the position after March’s fraudulent missile alert led to the resignation of the former administrator — with mitigating risks from the plant.
On May 10, Travis directed the removal of 60,000 gallons of highly flammable pentane from the venture. As the eruptions continued, however, lava has started moving faster, shooting up out of more than 20 fissures across the area and sending state officials scrambling to shut off the 11 wells located at the site.
By Monday, everyone but one of the wells had been totally shut down, Travis said at a press conference. “We are currently pumping fluid to plug the final well,” he said. “Once that step is taken we will be in a much more solid state for having lava overflow the site.”
The wells were shut off in early May after the eruption began, but to totally close them they must be filled with cold water and then physically capped, Travis said. Officials were waiting to regain metal plugs for the wells, he added, but expected to regain them early Tuesday.
“whether you plot tremendous heat on any metal, it changes how much pressure and stress that metal can hold,” said Travis. “That’s why having lava flow across the well causes some uncertainties that hold to be dealt with.”
He also warned that a threat of a deadly gas release still remains.
“The critical factor would be hydrogen sulfide, a very deadly gas,” Travis said. “Lava is starting to intrude on the southern edge of the Puna Geothermal venture site. It’s not easy to predict where it’s going to depart and when it’s going to regain there.”
Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator Talmadge Magno said Monday that authorities were preparing for the opportunity of a hydrogen sulfide release, and were ready to evacuate the community whether essential.
“We hold leaned forward in preparing an evacuation method whether essential,” said Gov. David Ige at a press conference Tuesday. An evacuation could include as much as a 3 mile radius around the site.
Travis illustrious that it would not be the first time hydrogen sulfide was released from the plant, referring to a 1991 incident when gas was released for 31 hours during the drilling of a well.
The release, which led to the evacuation of at least 75 residents, prompted current protests from local environmentalists and community members, many of whom hold been critical of the plant since it first came online. The plant again released hydrogen sulfide into the air in 2014 after a pressure valve failed, main to a $24,000 fine from Hawaii’s Department of Health.
As the lava approached the plant this week, some people hold illustrious that Pele, the ancient Hawaiian goddess of volcanos, was exacting her revenge.
Pele “is cleansing and cleaning house – doing finally what so many hold stood and fought to execute over the years and still now,” one person wrote on Instagram. “she is their shutdown. she is domestic and she is coming in.”
Michelle Broder Van Dyke is a reporter and night editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Hawaii.
Contact Michelle Broder Van Dyke at [email protected].
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