A geothermal power plant in Hawaii at risk of being overrun with molten lava from the erupting Kilauea Volcano is a ‘ticking time bomb’, claim local activists.
Locals in the badly effected Puna district fear the fiery river of molten rock could overcome the plant which they have warned for decades was a disaster waiting to happen.
And as aerial photos showed the lava flow looming closer to the perimeter of the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) plant, engineers worked into the night on Tuesday to cap the 11th and final well, which provides about 25 percent of the Big Island’s power.
As of Wednesday, lava had poured over warehouses just outside the plant and was about 100 yards from the facility as officials feared it could trigger the release of deadly hydrogen sulfate gas.
The distance between the lava front and the plant will likely have shortened into Thursday morning.
The wells at the Puna Geothermal Venture plant were plugged overnight as lava from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano inched closer to the site. The plant is pictured above on Tuesday
A satellite photo provided by DigitalGlobe shows lava coming out of fissures caused by Kilauea volcano, near Puna Geothermal Venture, a geothermal energy plant, which could explode if hit by lava
An aerial view of two storage warehouses, part of the Puna Geothermal Venture’s facility, are consumed by an eruption by reactivated fissure 6 in Pahoa on Tuesday
Lava has already crossed onto the plant’s land and destroyed one building, was still about 1,000 feet from the wells on Tuesday
Plant workers have already removed 60,000 gallons of highly flammable pentane gas from the site and installed barriers and protective coverings over the area.
But local activists, who for decades have argued the power plant should never have been built in a residential area, and have filed multiple lawsuits challenging its placement on Kilauea volcano, claim the danger is clear and present.
Activist Kalikolehua Kanaele of the protector group Aloha Aina (Love the Living God), told DailyMail.com: ‘This has been the greatest concern of this community for 50 years.
Kalikolehua Kanaele of the protector group Aloha Aina (Love the Living God), claims many residents have suffered medical conditions from living so close to the power plant
‘If the wells break the gas could ignite and there could be a huge explosion. It’s a ticking time bomb and we always knew this situation could arise. We just hope that a disaster can be averted and nobody gets hurt.’
Kanaele, 68, and others say the wells, which run as deep as 8,000ft, pose a serious risk from the lava if they overheat or are breached by underground seismic activity.
If the wells break, they could release tons of flammable and toxic hydrogen sulfide into the air around the current evacuation zone, which is already choked with volcanic smog.
The gas has the potential to cause huge explosions and winds could spark an emergency evacuation covering a 10-mile radius.
Community activist Bob Petricci, president of the Puna Pono Alliance watchdog group, said the area is one of the most unstable pieces of land on the planet and people should be concerned about the threat.
‘The bigger danger right now is the wells, which go down 8,000ft, and tap into a resource which is one of the hottest and most toxic in the world, hydrogen sulphide,’ he explains.
‘The concentrations of this deadly gas are extremely high, I’m talking between 1100-1300 parts per million at the well head. At 700 parts per million, a person will die breathing that in.’
Petricci, a sustainable farmer who lived next to the plant when it was built, says that in 1991 the plant had a blow-out that caused problems up to ten miles away.
He added: ‘I’m not a scientist but I know enough to be sure we’re all in a lot of danger should any of these wells break because of the volcanic activity.
‘There’s a lot of fractures occurring every time there’s an earthquake and the wells go through these fractures.
‘That’s the issue right now that the government is worried about, if the well head snaps off they’re not sure what will come back up and there would be no way to stop it.
Community activist Bob Petricci, president of the Puna Pono Alliance watchdog group, said the area is one of the most unstable pieces of land on the planet and people should be concerned about the PGV plant
County officials say they are closely monitoring emissions, and will issue an evacuation if toxic fumes spike. Above, lava flows near the plant on Monday
The plant harnesses heat and steam from the earth’s core which spin turbines to generate power. The plant pictured above on Monday
‘In my mind the potential for a catastrophe is huge, if they lose a well it could cause an evacuation of up to ten miles radius.’
This past two weeks the Puna district has been hit with as many as 140 smaller earthquakes every day.
The PGV plant is 15 miles from the heart of the volcano, but while Ormat Technologies Inc – which runs the facility – last week insisted there was little risk of the lava reaching it, everyone’s worst nightmare is coming true.
Geothermal energy – while seen as a sustainable and environmentally friendly form of power – has had a controversial past on Hawaii.
Kanaele, who has lived on Hawaii his whole life, has been following the issues surrounding the plant since the late 70s and claims many residents living in its shadow, who were once vibrant people, have suffered medical conditions over the years.
‘There’s no filters, this plant is filled with poison,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘And it has effected many people in this community, it’s an issue we have been fighting for a long time.
‘It was all about money and little concern was given to the people who might be effected by it.’
But the potential for disaster is now at its most pressing.
The wells allow steam and hot liquid to rise which powers huge turbines, producing up to 38 megawatts of electricity, which is sold to Hawaii Electric Light Co.
The Nevada-owned plant provides about a quarter of the Big Island’s power. the plane is pictured above on May 16
Lava flows have already reached the ocean. When lava hits the cold ocean water, it creates a steam called laze which is toxic. Hawaiian and mariners are being warned to avoid this toxic steam. Above, a lava flow entering the ocean on Tuesday
Kilauea’s summit is now belching 15,000 tons of the gas each day up from 6,000 tons daily prior to the May 3 eruption
In June 1991, according to the Washington Post, the plant accidentally released into the air 180 pounds per hour of hydrogen sulfide and other toxic compounds, including lead, chromium, arsenic and mercury, according to an environmental study conducted the following month.
Hydrogen sulfide can irritate eyes and lungs, but in large quantities can cause severe headaches, dizziness, respiratory paralysis and death.
According to a published report from Goddard and Goddard, the release posed a ‘significant health concern’ that violated emission limits and caused health problems in the area.
It’s claimed at least 123 people reported health issues, the report said.
The following year protest groups managed to put a stop to a new geothermal plant being built on the island, meaning the PGV site remains the only one.
More recently in 2013 the PGV plant was fined $76,500 by the Environmental Protection Agency after a pump failure resulted in the release of contaminants, including hydrogen sulfide.
And in 2014, Hurricane Iselle triggered another accident, with locals reporting a sound like a ‘jet engine’ roar, smelling sulfur, and experiencing headaches, coughing and lethargy when a plume of gas was released from the plant.
At the time plant officials said the release was intentional and did not exceed regulatory limits for toxins.
The Big Island has the potential to produce 1,400 megawatts of geothermal, seven times what is needed to power its energy needs.
This photo from video from the U.S. Geological Survey shows blue burning flames of methane gas erupting through cracks on Kahukai Street in the Leilani Estates neighborhood of Pahoa on the island of Hawaii during the overnight hours of Wednesday. When lava buries plants and shrubs, methane gas is produced as a byproduct of burning vegetation. Methane gas can seep into subsurface voids and explode when heated, emerging from cracks in the ground several feet away from the lava
Fissures spew lava in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii, on Tuesday. Authorities were racing Tuesday to close off production wells at a geothermal plant threatened by a lava flow from Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island
Lava flows like the ones pictued above spread across Hawaii this week as the Kilauea volcano continued to ravage the state’s Big Island
In a statement posted on their website Ormat said they are monitoring the present situation and have taken a series of safety measures to prevent a disaster.
‘We continue to monitor the situation in coordination with HELCO, and with local and state authorities,’ said Isaac Angel, CEO of Ormat Technologies.
The statement said several steps have been taken to secure the Puna plant in accordance with its emergency response plan.
These steps include taking electricity generation offline, shutting down all the wells, placing barriers and protective coverings over the wells and removing flammable materials from the facility to a storage area off-site.
The firms adds that it has insurance coverage in the event of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes for up to $100 million.
But activist Petricci says that for all their reassurance no one can give any guarantees.
‘Our argument from the beginning has been that they shouldn’t have put something like this in a pre-existing residential neighborhood in the first place,’ he said.
‘If anything maybe this is the wake-up call they need.’