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Draft geothermal health assessment released

Hawaii 24/7 Staff

The results of an independent geothermal health assessment study have been posted in draft form.

The 118-page document is billed as a joint fact finding effort by a study group. At the request of Mayor Billy Kenoi, the working group was convened by Peter Adler, a nationally known and Hawaii-based expert in the field of complex issue management and collaborative problem solving.

“This joint fact finding process is an important first step towards addressing community health concerns in a responsible and independent fashion,” Kenoi said when commissioning the report. “We need to apply the best science available. That starts with the collection of existing knowledge on the topic and a reasoned and sustained conversation about what methods can best inform us all about any public health conditions associated with geothermal energy in our community.”

The group was directed to focus on the best factual information available and be conducted without political interference or advocacy.

Adler – contracted for $50,000 – was tasked with bringing together scientists, knowledgeable community leaders, medical clinicians, and others with experience and interest in the subject.

The plan included conducting a round of confidential interviews to understand the history and current views of geothermal health issues.

The report’s executive summary:


1. Puna’s Public Health Profile Is Unclear.

Puna’s overall public health appears worse than the County and State. We do not have an accurate and readily available profile of disease and illness patterns for the past and current populations of Puna.

Usable and pertinent public health information should normally include statistics on mortality (heart disease, malignant neoplasms, cerebrovascular disease, respiratory illness, unintentional accidents, etc.); actual causes of death (accidents, tobacco, alcohol, microbial agents, toxic agents, etc.); actual disabilities (arthritis, diabetes, chronic back problems, impaired vision, etc.); and detailed mortality and morbidity information by age, ethnicity, and length of time in Puna.

An accurate health picture would normally also include clinic and hospital admissions, numbers of days of sickness, and other statistical snapshots that could provide a better basis for understanding geothermal health issues.

2. Health Studies Are Needed.

Events during the HGP-A era and during the 1991 blowout provided exposures that studies conducted outside of Puna have associated with adverse health effects. The Study Group believes there were health effects from geothermal development during this period of time.

Based on Goddard & Goddard’s modeling analysis of emission concentrations of the 1991 blow-out as well as subsequent volunteered reports and medical diagnoses of symptoms, the Study Group concludes there is evidence that there were health effects from the exposures early in the development of geothermal (before 1993). The full extent and severity of those effects has not been documented.

After 1993, the Study Group is uncertain about whether there have been health effects and what the extent and severity of those effects are, if any, due in part to poor identification and documentation in health studies.

No study has clearly identified the scope of the effects nor has any study established clear causation. Since 1991, no health study has identified any health effects that can be attributed to geothermal development or operations, but monitoring of exposures has been inadequate.

3. Geothermal Operations Carry Health Risks

Risks from geothermal energy production in Puna exist. The actual extent and impacts of those risks remains unresolved. What is known is that hazardous chemicals come up and go back down in PGV’s closed system. Some fluids inevitably escape to air, water, and/or at ground level.

Harmful effects can only be understood through better monitoring and reliable health data.


1. Undertake a Comprehensive Health Effects Study.

Using robust scientific methodologies, the County should commission a comparison group study to test four hypotheses.

First, central nervous system (“CNS”) degradation of the sample population will likely be more pronounced as a function of highest peak exposure to H2S. Other symptoms, particularly respiratory effects, may be more pronounced as a function of length and extent of exposure.

Second, CNS and other negative health effects from exposure to emissions including H2S will be greater in areas of highest exposures. Such exposures will be a function of meteorological conditions and emission rates over plant history.

Third, heavy metal and other chemical contamination from geothermal energy production sources may have spread into the soil and into water catchments and affected drinking water supplies. This spread of heavy metals could cause health effects to residents in proximity to geothermal plants.

Fourth, as a consequence of noise and vibration, residents who have (a) lived closest to geothermal project development, (b) directly experienced geothermal gas releases, (c) have been evacuated, or (d) have experienced the highest noise levels may be more likely to show anxiety disorder symptoms.

2. Conduct a Meta-Analysis of H2S.

A complete and up-to-date examination of all relevant information on the H2S topics covered by this report has not been performed. The Study Group believes that one of the best methods to accomplish a robust informative review is a “meta-analysis.”

It is recommended that an RFP be established and funded to perform a meta-analysis of our primary health concern: the effects of H2S on CNS and respiratory function.

3. Establish a Better Monitoring System.

Although responsibility for the monitoring and reporting of exposures is decentralized across different agencies and organizations, current monitoring systems and protocols are inadequate and must be substantially improved.

County of Hawaii is the layer of government closest to the day-to-day lives of its citizens and the health and welfare of its citizens must take precedence over other geothermal interests it may have.

County of Hawaii should take the lead in ensuring that reliable data and information is collected, reported, and retained so that exposures can be understood both when upset conditions occur, and cumulatively over time.

4. Evaluate Geothermal Effects on Drinking Water and the Near-Shore Ocean Environment.

Geothermal energy production involves drilling through various geological layers, creating a risk of water contamination downstream of the reinjection site.

As a separate initiative, the County should commission USGS to study the consequence of brine re-injection possibly using pentane as a marker. Ocean contamination and possible near-shore die off should also be studied. Using robust scientific methodologies, the County should test the following hypotheses.

First, brine that is deeply re-injected into the lower East Rift geothermal zone could be migrating vertically into surface water flows, causing contamination of these surface waters and the ocean shore brackish basal ground waters.

Second, contamination of the ocean shore waters caused by geothermal development could be affecting coastal and near-shore plant and animal life.

Third, pentane or possibly other injectate components can serve as markers for injection fluid migration.

5. Assure the Credibility, Reliability, and Independence of Experts.

The Study Group recommends a two-tier approach that (1) puts the review and evaluation of proposals in the hands of disinterested scientists and (2) makes the final selection the responsibility of informed, unbiased local citizens and County personnel.

This recommendation responds to the continued wariness by some citizens that their fears of health harms will not be influential while at the same time recognizing that the County must be convinced that an open, objective, and scientifically valid selection will result.

6. Ensure There Is No Old or Ongoing Contamination From HGP-A.

The Study Group recommends that the County use the full strength of its influence with state and federal agencies and private landowners to ensure the old HGP-A site is free of contaminants. Soils and water channels in the area of the five HGP-A brine pits should be studied with vertical samples deep enough to go beyond the fill used to cover old pits. Any survey should examine whether and to what extent contamination occurred and what re-mediations, if any, may be required.

7. Strengthen Public Communications and Alerts.

Since geothermal energy production involves health and safety risks, announcements, messages, and emergency declarations must reach the public in a timely manner, especially those in close proximity to geothermal operations. The more severe the condition, the more urgent the communication required.

We urge the County to install and update its notification procedures and to consider a variety of mechanisms to provide alerts to the public when upset conditions occur.

Study Group Members

* Jay Bondesen (Puna)
Retired builder. Background experience with materials safety data and hazard. Member and President of the Leilani Estates Board of Directors.

* Alfred Dettweiler (Puna)
Past President of the Leilani Community Association and a long-time resident of Puna. Has extensive background in the history of geothermal energy development in Hawai‘i and has gathered H2S readings in the community.

* Dan Domizo, MPH, PA (Puna)
Clinical Programs Director of the Puna Community Medical Center. Resident of Puna District who brings wide-ranging and in-depth experience with public health matters in Puna.

* Edward Fisher, PhD (Kea‘au)
Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, UH Hilo School of Pharmacy. Has wide-ranging experience in scientific matters and brings special
experience in toxicology.

* James Haefner, PhD (Puna)
Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology and Ecology, Utah State University. Has extensive background in the design, validation, and statistical analysis of system models.

* LaRee Ann Hiltner, MS (Puna)
Degrees in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Brings experience in industrial hygiene, instrumentation, and calibration.

* Robert Petricci (Puna)
Businessman and founder and long-time leader of Puna Pono Alliance. Knowledgeable about geothermal matters generally and, more specifically, the history of geothermal issues in the Puna District.

* Rene Siracusa, MA, ABD (Puna)
One of the founders of the Big Island Rainforest Action Group and President of Malama O Puna. Brings long experience in environmental matters and serves as board president of Puna Community Medical Center.

* A. Jeff Sutton, PhD (Volcano)
Geochemist with the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. Brings strong background in the chemistry of volcanic gases, the role of gases in eruptive processes, and the effects of volcanic emissions as a volcanic hazard.

* Laura Travis, RN (Puna)
Healthcare experience with expertise in medical issues faced by mothers, infants, retirees, and war injured. Training and service in public health.

* Thomas Travis, USN (ret) (Puna)
Retired submarine and deputy battle group commander. Brings extensive military and civilian experience in the practical application of analysis and evidentiary standards to complex

* Maile Tualii, PhD (Honolulu)
Brings strong background in public health genetics, informatics, and related behavioral and social sciences coupled with Native Hawaiian cultural perspectives.

To read the complete report, visit:…

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