State says well field at Puna Geothermal 'essentially safe'

Fissure reactivates in lower Puna, spilling lava toward geothermal plant
Published: May. 21, 2018 at 7:59 PM HST|Updated: May. 23, 2018 at 6:24 AM HST
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PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lava continues to inch toward Puna Geothermal Venture's plant, but officials said Tuesday that efforts to quench or plug all 11 wells at the site were successful and that the risk of hazardous gases being released into the community if lava enters the site is low.

"The well field at PGV is essentially safe," said Hawaii Emergency Management Administrator Thomas Travis, at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

He added, "The well field is as safe as we can get the well field. The probability of anything happening if lava enters the well field is very, very low. They should feel pretty comfortable that there should be no untoward events from Puna Geothermal, assuming the lava doesn't change its pattern or flow."

He said if the lava does change its flow, making it unsafe for crews to stay on site, that could pose additional problems.

The reassurance comes after days of mounting concern about the threat posed by eruptions nearing the facility. The worst case-scenario that civil defense officials are still preparing for: Lava inundating geothermal wells at the plant and triggering a release of toxic gases.

Gov. David Ige said while it's important for authorities to prepare for the worst, he's certain that the risk posed by the plant has been greatly reduced.

"We feel that we are at a safe place now. The biggest risks are mitigated," he said. "We have leaned forward in preparing an evacuation plan if necessary. Clearly, everyone is working to minimize the risk to the community and ensure health and safety."

On Tuesday morning, authorities confirmed that lava had destroyed a storage shed at the plant and continued to creep toward the facility.

At two points, lava has come within about 100 to 200 meters of the plant, Travis said.

Authorities have worked for more than a week to address potential threats at the plant. That effort started with removing tens of thousands of gallons of highly flammable pentane from the site.

And it continues with work to reduce pressure in the plant's geothermal wells. Crews did that by quenching them with cold water.

One of the wells, however, wouldn't cool — presumably, because of magma underground — and so the plant used a mud-like substance to partially or fully plug it, authorities said.

The major concern before the wells were addressed was that a lava inundation could trigger a release of hydrogen sulfide, a dangerous gas.

The concern now, authorities acknowledged Tuesday, is about the unknown.

"If the lava comes over a well, this isn't something that's been experimented with," Travis said.

The governor added that even though the situation is stable, additional problems could arise. In the event of an uncontrolled release of hydrogen sulfide, he said, "we can notify the community and remove the residents if necessary."

"We do know this will be an ongoing event," he said.

Mike Kaleikini, of Puna Geothermal Venture, said Monday the plant is being monitored around the clock to make sure crews can act quickly if they need to.

"Safety has been foremost our no. 1 priority for our employees and also for the surrounding community so with that we're not going to spare any resources to ensure safety," he said.

This story will be updated.

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