With some 50,000 gallons of potentially explosive solvent still sitting at the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant, Gov. David Ige on Wednesday signed an emergency proclamation giving him the authority to do what’s necessary at the plant to protect the community.
Ige said he asked PGV officials last week to move the pentane gas as quickly as possible to an area away from Kilauea’s East Rift Zone.
“They said they were going to get on it — and it’s still on the site, so that’s why I’m taking this action today,” the governor said at a Capitol news conference.
Ige also announced that he was asking President Donald Trump to declare the state of Hawaii a major disaster as a result of the ongoing seismic activity and volcanic eruption.
He said Hawaii County and the state have poured more than $400,000 into eruption zone emergency measures, and he estimated the cost to protect residents over the next month will exceed $2.9 million.
Ige said he asked Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Thomas Travis to lead a team to develop and implement a plan to deal with the potential dangers at the PGV plant.
The supplemental emergency proclamation, he said, establishes lines of authority which enables a more comprehensive response to the unpredictable risks posted by the Kilauea eruption.
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The geothermal power plant — shut down after lava began spewing into Lower Puna May 3 — is wedged between the residential areas of Nanawale Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and Leilani Estates, where lava from at least 15 fissures has destroyed dozens of structures.
Ige said the plant is safe for now, but “we want to be certain that we have the authority to act decisively if necessary.”
The two major concerns, he said, are the pentane and the geothermal wells, both of which have explosive potential that could impact surrounding neighborhoods.
At least 12,000 gallons of pentane was moved Wednesday to a secured location in Shipman Industrial Park in Keaau, Hawaii County Civil Defense officials said.
Earlier in the day, Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for PGV, said the company was aiming to move another 50,000 gallons in the next day or two. “This is priority No. 1 for us,” he said.
Kaleikini said the pentane already had been moved to high ground on the PGV property, and “we’ve got a handle on it from my perspective.”
Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods have been vocal about the situation, expressing fears that lava could ignite the flammable compound and create a massive explosion.
“As I attended a community meeting the other night, clearly that was the biggest concern expressed by the residents there,” the governor said.
Ige said he didn’t believe PGV was acting recklessly or irresponsibly. He acknowledged that it did appear the initial fissures were opening up in a succession that was traveling away from the plant.
But some of the newest fissures, including No. 15, which opened Wednesday, are edging closer to the PGV property line.
Ige said the company initially said it would take weeks to move the fuel but “we always thought it was an urgent need, and we requested that they remove the fuel as soon as possible.” He said state officials identified it as an issue shortly after the first fissure opened in Leilani Estates on May 3.
In the end, he said, he was not satisfied PGV was acting fast enough.
Ige said Kim and Travis will lead a team that will include representatives from the Hawaii National Guard, the state departments of Health, and Land and Natural Resources, as well as Hawaii County’s departments of Planning, Fire, Police, and Parks and Recreation. PGV also will be represented.
The team, which started meeting Wednesday morning, will review and assess the existing PGV emergency response plan and develop a strategy to deal with potential impacts from volcanic activity. The group, he said, is expected to look at off-site relocation as well as other options and will reach out to experts for advice.
PGV is a geothermal energy conversion plant that brings steam and hot liquid up through underground wells to power turbines. The 38 megawatts of electricity generated by PGV is sold to Hawaii Electric Light Co. and distributed to its Big Island customers. HELCO officials have said they have enough generation to power the island without the geothermal plant.
The fact that Travis, a retired U.S. Navy captain, is a well-known critic of PGV is not a concern, Ige said, because others on the team will balance the effort.
Staff writer Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.